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Discovering elephants ability to imitate sounds

A week ago Anita asked whether we had worked with the elephant orphans at the Sheldrick Trust and whether being raised by humans affected their communication. Petter already answered that we have worked with them. Since that work resulted in a paper in Nature, and since it has some bearing on Anita's question I will tell you a bit about what we found.

In 1998 Daphne Sheldrick's daughter, Jill, mentioned to me that one of the orphan's in Tsavo (where they go once they are over two years old) was making a very strange sound. So I went down to Tsavo with my recording equipment and once the orphans were settled down in their "boma" (enclosure) for the night I began recording. Almost immediately I heard a very weird sound and asked the keeper what it was. "That's it!" he responded. It sounded like a fog horn - nothing like an elephant! I soon realised that when I had my earphones on I couldn't tell whether I was hearing the elephant, Malaika, making the strange noise or whether I was hearing the distant trucks on the Nairobi-Mombasa road, 3 kilometers away - and had to remove my earphones to localize the sound and differentiate them. I began thinking that perhaps Malaika (and some of the other orphans it turned out) was imitating truck sounds! But I didn't think anyone would believe me.

Here is the sound Malaika made: {audio}A2200421_truck_like_call_48.mp3{/audio}

(You may need to use earphones or be connected to a sound system to hear it properly).

Some years later I contacted Peter Tyack and Stephanie Watwood who study vocal learning (imitation) in dolphins about the recordings I had. At about that time Angela Steoger-Horwath got in touch with me, saying that she had recordings of a captive male African elephant who had been raised with Asian females and was making Asian elephant chirping sounds! So the four of us teamed up and wrote a paper for Nature documenting vocal learning in elephants. (Poole et al. 2005. Elephants are capable of vocal learning. (289.43 kB))

Elephants are highly social and intelligent animals and they also happen to have a very flexible vocal tract. This means that they have the ability to learn to produce sounds other than those that fall in the normal repertoire of the species. In a natural social setting we may find that elephants use this ability to imitate their close associates in order to cement these bonds (a bit like our daughter's English accent changes from Norwegian English to Kenyan English depending upon which of her friends she is with). This ability was demonstrated by the African elephant raised with Asians. In captivity elephants also seem to use their vocal learning ability in less useful ways - by imitating trucks and lawnmowers or people whistling, or just making weird sounds. Perhaps this activity relieves the boredom that captivity often presents.