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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note/Parroting Elephants

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports that elephants have a knack for imitation, whether it's the sounds of other elephants or trucks.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood and coming up: Field research in quest of the simple life—an MIT scientist goes Amish. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: Humans and songbirds can do it. Dolphins and bats can, too. Now, researchers have found imitation is also a form of communication for elephants.

Collaborating scientists in Kenya and Massachusetts recorded the vocalizations of two African elephants from two very different backgrounds. What they heard was nothing like that of the trumpeting call of the average African elephant.

Calimero, a 23-year-old male, was raised in a zoo with two Asian elephants for 18 years. Scientists found most of his vocalizations resembled the chirping noises typical of his Asian zoo-mates, rather than the deeper calls of his African ancestors. They say this mimicking might be his way of fitting in with a social group.

Also, a ten-year-old female Mlaika lived on the Savannah plains of Kenya with orphaned elephants, two miles from a busy highway. The majority of Mlaika's calls sounded less like an elephant and more like the revving of a truck engine. Researchers believe Mlaika learned to imitate her "highway friends" at night, when the sounds of passing trucks dominated the landscape.

It's the first time this mimicking trait has been found among these huge mammals, suggesting upbringing could shape their vocal repertoire. These skills may also help elephants recognize each other and bond as part of a group. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Jennifer Chu.



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