CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
NASA/JPL-Caltech
arrow
Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
iStock
iStock

Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios