What’s With All the Talking Animals?

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

“It is a farewell gift from the dolphins,” said Wonko in a low, quiet voice, “the dolphins whom I loved and studied, and swam with, and fed with fish, and even tried to learn their language, a task which they seemed to make impossibly difficult, considering the fact that I now realize they were perfectly capable of communicating in ours if they decided they wanted to.” — Douglas Adams, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, 1985.

Boy howdy have there been a lot of talking animals lately. And by a lot, I mean two, which is still a lot when we’re talking human imitations by animals. First came Noc, the burbling beluga whale  who told his trainer to get out of the pool. A week later, we have Koshik, the Asian elephant who takes Noc’s burbles and raises him a very understandable six-word Korean vocabulary.

It’s funny, yes, and we can all gasp and laugh, which I did. But it’s also pretty amazing. Were any of us to have grown up with an elephant, we would still be hard-pressed to stick our fingers in our mouths and mimic them well enough that they could understand us. And how well can you whistle like a whale underwater?

In order for these animals to be able to pull this off, not only do they have to be socially inclined to want to bond verbally with us in the first place (it’s not a coincidence that both whales and elephants are extremely social animals), but they need to have tight neural connections between their auditory cortices and their motor control areas, and the ingenuity to pull it off.

Noc, for instance, makes the nosies by modulating the pressure in his nasal tract and over-inflating the vestibular sacs in his whale ears. For carrots and praise, Koshik sticks his trunk in his mouth and does, well, something to MacGuyver his vocal tract. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what the process is. “He’s too big to put him into the X-ray,” Angela Stoeger, lead author on the elephant paper, had told me. “I really tried to get my camera into his mouth, but obviously he’s not that tame.”

I’m over at National Geo News again today, writing up the piece on Koshik, so I highly and selfishly recommend you head over and take a look.

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