"Choah," he tells the camera. "Choah, annyong. Anja." In English: "good," "good," "hello," and "sit down."
Watch Koshik Speak Korean
Six years ago, this video clip, sent by the flummoxed staff of the Everland Zoo, hit the inbox of elephant-communication researcher Joyce Poole of ElephantVoices. The footage was the first look scientists would have of Koshik, the Korean-speaking elephant.
"This is amazing," Poole, a Conservation Trust grantee for the National Geographic Society, had written at the time. (National Geographic News is part of the Society.)
"I can't see any chance that it is being faked, and it is certainly a human voice that is being imitated." She passed the clip to colleagues. Somebody needed to check this out—could this possibly be genuine?
Fast-forward six years, and confirmation has finally arrived in a new study led by one of Poole's former colleagues, Angela Stoeger of the University of Vienna. Koshik, Stoeger said, is definitely for real.
(Also see "'Talking' Whale Could Imitate Human Voice.")
An Elephant With an Ear for Language
To reach this conclusion, Stoeger and her team first had to verify that Koshik's sounds were words at all. According to the elephant's trainers, he had a six-word vocabulary, including annyong ("hello"), aniya ("no"), anja ("sit down"), and choah ("good").
So the team played 47 recordings of the imitations to native Korean speakers who'd never heard the elephant before, and instructed them to simply write down whatever they heard. "They knew they were listening to an elephant, but they didn't know what they were supposed to hear," explained Stoeger, whose study appeared recently in the journal Current Biology.
But even to the human ears, the words were readily understandable and transcribed. Vowels were easiest for the subjects to make out, and when reports contradicted each other, it was almost always over consonants, which Koshik still struggles with.
"It's not a hundred percent" accurate, said Stoeger. "But still, if you don't know at all what you're going to hear, it's even difficult to understand the best parrot imitating human speech."
To ensure these weren't variants of natural elephant calls, the researchers also compared Koshik's words to typical Asian elephant sounds, and found that they were completely different. However, they were dead ringers for the intonations and frequency of the commands of his trainers, whom the researchers believe are the subjects of Koshik's imitations.
A Tongue-in-Cheek Approach
The fact that Koshik talks pales compared with how he talks. When humans make an o sound, they pull in their cheeks and pout their lips out into a rounded circle. Elephants don't have that cheek-lip structure—they long ago traded it in for trunks—so it's anatomically impossible to make those sounds.
Koshik sidesteps this problem by sticking the tip of his trunk into his mouth and moving his lower jaw, essentially MacGyvering his vocal tract.
"He really developed a new way of sound production," Stoeger said. "Naturally, Asian elephants don't do this."
In fact, the only instance of an animal behavior even coming close to Koshik's tool-aided mimicry is in orangutans, which tweak the frequency of their normal calls with their hands or leaves.
"It's really fascinating. I'm amazed. And excited," said Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, an elephant-communications specialist at Stanford University who was not involved in the study.
The very first evidence that elephants could even do vocal imitations only came out in 2005, and featured African elephants imitating trucks and noises from other elephant species, she said.
"That was a beginning," O'Connell-Rodwell said. "But this is crossing species and creating a much harder vocalization to emit."
The Elephant in the Room
Vocal imitation in the animal kingdom is already a rarity, and imitations of human speech even more so. Parrots can do it, as could a harbour seal named Hoover and a beluga whale from San Diego.
Researchers believe the feat requires not only the appropriate vocal machinery—or ingenious trunk-tinkering—but also a strong social affiliation with people. Hoover, for example had been hand-reared by a fisher, and the beluga had his trainers.
Koshik started his imitations—or trainers first recognized his imitations—when he was 14 years old, after spending much of his adolescence isolated from other elephants.
"Elephants are highly complex, social, and intelligent animals with individual personalities," said ElephantVoice's Poole.
"They are able to produce an incredible variety of sounds in a wide range of contexts," said Poole, who was not involved in the latest research.
"One might turn the question around: Given their remarkable social complexity and demonstrated flexibility, their significant cognitive capabilities, and their physical capacities, why should we be so surprised that they imitate sounds in their environment?"