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 yesterday what the Everland Zoo has been saying for years: their 5.5-tonne tusker Koshik can talk, 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, the scientists said 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 researcher said there was no conclusive evidence Koshik understood the words he utters, although he did respond to words such as anja and nuwo.
Everland Zoo officials in the city of Yongin, 50 kilometres south of Seoul, said Koshik also can say ajik (not yet), but the researchers had not confirmed the accomplishment.
Koshik was particularly good with vowels, with a rate of similarity of 67 per cent, the researchers said. For consonants, he scores only 21 per cent.
Researchers said the clearest scientific evidence that Koshik was deliberately imitating human speech was that the sound frequency of his words matched that of his trainers.
Vocal imitation of other species has been found in mockingbirds, parrots and mynahs, and recently was noted in a beluga whale's human-like song. But the paper said Koshik's case represented "a wholly novel method of vocal production" because he uses his trunk to reproduce human speech.
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. His growing reputation prompted Austrian biologist Angela Stoeger-Horwath and German biophysicist Daniel Mietchen to study him in 2010, zoo officials said.