3 Animals (Other Than Birds) That Mimic Human Speech

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.

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NASA Has a Plan to Stop the Next Asteroid That Threatens Life on Earth
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An asteroid colliding catastrophically with Earth within your lifetime is unlikely, but not out of the question. According to NASA, objects large enough to threaten civilization hit the planet once every few million years or so. Fortunately, NASA has a plan for dealing with the next big one when it does arrive, Forbes reports.

According to the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan [PDF] released by the White House on June 21, there are a few ways to handle an asteroid. The first is using a gravity tractor to pull it from its collision course. It may sound like something out of science fiction, but a gravity tractor would simply be a large spacecraft flying beside the asteroid and using its gravitational pull to nudge it one way or the other.

Another option would be to fly the spacecraft straight into the asteroid: The impact would hopefully be enough to alter the object's speed and trajectory. And if the asteroid is too massive to be stopped by a spacecraft, the final option is to go nuclear. A vehicle carrying a nuclear device would be launched at the space rock with the goal of either sending it in a different direction or breaking it up into smaller pieces.

Around 2021, NASA will test its plan to deflect an asteroid using a spacecraft, but even the most foolproof defense strategy will be worthless if we don’t see the asteroid coming. For that reason, the U.S. government will also be working on improving Near-Earth Object (NEO) detection, the technology NASA uses to track asteroids. About 1500 NEOs are already detected each year, and thankfully, most of them go completely unnoticed by the public.

[h/t Forbes]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

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Though one 2003 study found that there was no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7- to 12-year-olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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