Original image

3 Animals (Other Than Birds) That Mimic Human Speech

Original image

Everyone knows that parrots can mimic human speech. So can a few other birds, including ravens and starlings. But it's not just birds that speak up. Here are a few less obvious examples of animals that have learned to sound like people.

1. Asian Elephant

At least one elephant is using his trunk for more than just eating. Koshik, a 22-year-old Asian Elephant in a Seoul, South Korea zoo, has learned to reproduce five Korean words— "annyeong" (hello), "anja" (sit down), "aniya" (no), "nuwo" (lie down) and "joa" (good)—by placing his trunk inside his mouth to modulate sound. This, says an international team of researchers who have been studying the elephant since 2010, is a “wholly novel method of vocal production.”

Koshik’s trainers first noticed that the pachyderm was imitating them in 2004. The best evidence that Koshik is actually mimicking humans is that the sound frequencies of his words match those of his trainers; researchers believe he learned to mimic human speech because he was lonely (Koshik was separated from other elephants when he was 5). He’s better with vowels than with consonants—his rates of similarity are 67 percent and 21 percent, respectively. There’s no evidence that Koshik understands the words, though he does respond to certain commands.

And Koshik might not be the only talking elephant. In 1983, zoo officials in Kazakhstan reported that one of their elephants could reproduce 20 Russian phrases, but no scientists ever researched the claim.

2. Beluga Whale

In 1984, researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, California, noticed something funny: They would hear people talking around their beluga whale "NOC"’s enclosure, even when no one was nearby. For a while, they couldn’t figure it out, until a diver in NOC’s tank thought that someone had told him to get out. It was, in fact, NOC, who was making a sound like the word “out.”

NOC kept up the vocalizations for a few years, allowing Sam Ridgeway of the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program in San Diego to record and study the beluga’s vocalizations. "The speechlike sounds were several octaves lower in frequency than the whale's usual sounds," Ridgeway, who co-authored a recently-released study on NOC in Current Biology, told National Geographic. NOC made the sounds by inflating air sacs to a much higher pressure than he did when making normal whale vocalizations.

NOC, who died in 1999, stopped the vocalizations in the late 1980s—probably, researchers theorize, because he reached sexual maturity. But why was a whale mimicking humans such a big deal anyway? Because NOC learned spontaneously, through listening to the humans around him—a phenomenon not previously demonstrated in cetaceans.

3. Harbour Seal

In 1971, George and Alice Swallow picked up an orphaned harbour seal pup in Cundy Harbor, Maine. They raised the seal—named Hoover, because he ate like a vacuum cleaner—first in their bathtub, and then in a pond behind their house. But when he got too big, the Swallows gave Hoover to the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. George told aquarium employees that he thought the seal could talk. No one believed him. But in a few years, when Hoover reached sexual maturity, he began to speak more clearly—complete with Boston accent! The seal could say a number of words and phrases, including "hey," “hello there,” “how are ya,” “get outta here,” “get down,” and his own name (you can listen to Hoover talking here). Hoover laughed, too, and when he died in 1985, he got his own obituary in the Boston Globe. Scientists believe that pinnipeds might help us understand what's involved in complex vocal learning.

Original image
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
Original image
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."


More from mental floss studios