Elephant Mimics

Two African elephants may be the first land mammals other than primates to learn vocal imitations.

It’s time to revise the old saying, “Monkey see, monkey do.” According to new research, you could also say, “Elephant hear, elephant do.”

The African elephant joins primates, marine mammals, bats, and birds as animals that can learn to mimic sounds.

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Two captive elephants have been caught copying noises of traffic and another elephant species. This is the first time that imitation by vocalization has been observed in land mammals other than monkeys and other primates and bats.

In one case, elephant researcher Joyce Poole went to visit a friend in Kenya who was raising an orphan African elephant named Mlaika. Poole is research director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Sandefjord, Norway. Her friend had told her that the adolescent female elephant was making a strange noise.

At the orphanage, Poole recorded a low-pitch sound from Mlaika for a few hours after sunset. As Poole made the recordings, she noticed that the elephant sounded just like the trucks on a highway just 3 kilometers away.

After she returned home, Poole heard about the second case—a 23-year-old male African elephant that had spent 18 years with two Asian elephants in a zoo in Switzerland. He made chirpy noises like his companions, even though African elephant calls don’t sound like that.

Poole brought her recordings and observations to Peter Tyack, an expert in vocal learning among marine mammals. Tyack and his team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts used statistics to compare sounds coming from the elephants with the sounds they seemed to be imitating. It was a match.

Imitation may be an important part in the complex social lives of African elephants, the scientists say. Many social animals, including some apes, marine mammals, bats, and birds, learn from others of their kind as they use their voices to communicate.

Scientists suspect that Asian elephants can also imitate sounds and behaviors. Many years ago, researchers reported that a baby Asian elephant watched an older one hold its trunk at a certain angle and whistle. Eventually, the baby learned how to do the same thing.

Now, researchers want to figure out how wild elephants use vocal imitation. If you want to investigate for yourself, try this: Do your best elephant impression and see what kind of social response you get. If your companions are people, you’ll probably attract lots of funny looks. If you surround yourself with elephants, however, you might just make some new friends.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Milius, Susan. 2005. Big mimics: African elephants can learn to copy sounds. Science News 167(March 26):197-198. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050326/fob6.asp .

To listen to recordings of the elephant sounds and other supplemental information accompanying the research paper, go to http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20050326/sounds.asp .

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