RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Many birds, like parrots, are talented vocal mimics, but mammals? Not so much. That's why scientists were stunned when they learned about the vocal talents of an elephant in South Korea. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that this elephant can distinctly say five different Korean words.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The Asian elephant is named Koshik, and he lives at the Everland Zoo in South Korea, where he's famous. In this recording, you can hear Koshik loudly bellowing the Korean word for good, over and over. Much softer, you hear his Korean trainer saying the words for good, good, hello.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANT)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A researcher named Tecumseh Fitch saw a video of Koshik at a science conference and thought: This can't be true.
TECUMSEH FITCH: At the time I thought it was a hoax. I thought it was a joke and I'd heard that it was on YouTube and stuff.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Fitch studies vocal learning in animals at the University of Vienna in Austria. He says most mammals can't mimic sounds. Humans can - but not other primates, like chimps and gorillas. Marine mammals are good at it. Dolphins can mimic computer-generated noises. One beluga whale made unusual sounds that had the rhythm and cadence of human speech.
And one seal named Hoover, who was raised by a Maine fisherman, even learned to say phrases. Here's Hoover making some noises that include hello there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAL)
HOOVER: Hello there. Hey, hey, hey. Hey.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Scientists did already know of a few elephants that could mimic sounds. For example, there's one African elephant who likes to make truck noises. But an elephant that can speak Korean? Fitch suggested that some colleagues go check Koshik out, scientifically. They made a bunch of recordings. Here's the Korean trainer saying the word for hello, and then Koshik saying it.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Anyong.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Anyong.
FITCH: This is not the kind of sound that Asian elephants normally make, and it's a dead on match of the speech of his trainers.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In the journal Current Biology, Fitch and his colleagues report that Koshik is the real deal, unlike a lot of other talking animal claims.
FITCH: Well, if you look on YouTube for talking animals, you'll find all these things where you've got a dog that's kind of going rawr-rawr-rawr-rawr-rawr. And then people say he's saying I love you. And, you know, if you listen you can kind of hear rawr-rawr-rawr, but all it is is just a dog kind of growling and moving his mouth. It's a normal dog vocalization.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What Koshik is doing is not normal. To imitate human speech, the elephant had to invent a new way of making sounds. He puts his trunk into his mouth and somehow manipulates his vocal tract. Fitch says the elephant must have been incredibly driven to do this. He thinks the animal wanted to bond with his human companions.
FITCH: What's interesting about Koshik is that he was basically deprived of contact with elephants in a crucial period of his childhood. The only company he had were his human trainers and his human keepers.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And the words he learned are the ones he often heard them say: the Korean words for hello, sit down, lie down, no, and good. Fitch says by learning more about Koshik and other animals that imitate sounds, scientists might start to understand why humans evolved to do this so well.
FITCH: This is not just a circus trick. This is not just a fun thing that animals do. It actually really gets at something that's very unusual and interesting about our own species.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it's something that's essential for music and for language. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.