Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tusker makes a trunk call

SEOUL, November 3, 2012

An elephant in a South Korean zoo is using his trunk to pick up not only food, but also human vocabulary.

An international team of scientists confirmed on Friday what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years — their 5.5-tonne tusker Koshik has an unusual and possibly unprecedented talent.

The 22-year-old Asian elephant can reproduce five Korean words by tucking his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound, said the scientists in a joint paper published online in Current Biology.

They said he may have started imitating human speech because he was lonely.

Koshik can reproduce annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down) and joa (good), the paper says.

One of the researchers said there was no conclusive evidence that Koshik understands the sounds he makes, though the elephant does respond to words like anja and nuwo.

Koshik is particularly good with vowels, with a rate of similarity of 67 per cent, said the researchers. For consonants, he scores only 21 per cent.

Researchers said the clearest scientific evidence that Koshik is deliberately imitating human speech is that the sound frequency of his words matches that of his trainers.

Vocal imitation of other species has been found in mockingbirds, parrots and mynahs. But the paper says Koshik's case represents "a wholly novel method of vocal production" because he uses his trunk to reproduce human speech.

In 1983, zoo officials in Kazakhstan reportedly claimed that a teenage elephant named Batyr could reproduce Russian to utter 20 phrases, including "Batyr is good." But there was no scientific study on the claim. Researchers believe Koshik learned to reproduce words out of a desire to bond with his trainers after he was separated from two other elephants at age five.

Koshik emerged as a star among animal enthusiasts and children in South Korea after Everland Zoo claimed in 2006 that he could imitate words, two years after his trainers noticed the phenomenon.

Kim Jong-gab, Koshik's chief trainer, said the elephant was timid for a male when he first came to Everland Zoo, so trainers often slept in the same area with him. Mr. Kim thinks that contact helped Koshik feel closer to humans. Mr. Kim said he has another phrase he wants to teach Koshik — Saranghae, or "I love you."
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