The end of 2012 appears to be angling towards batshit insane after all. It might not be on par with a Mayan foretold apocalypse, but between the east coast of America getting pummeled by a hurricane and news of talking animals coming to light, even hardboiled skeptics like me are beginning to take notice.
In all seriousness, learning about several “high-profile*” animals taking to spontaneous mimicry is all that’s keeping me going. It’s good to know that when climate change eventually kills us off, parrots won’t be the only animals to carry on our linguistic legacy.
First up, we have a beluga whale who needed a little personal space. NOC (named after nasty little insects “no-see-ums”) apparently uttered a phrase from every ghost story you’ve ever heard. “Get out.”
When he was nine years old, NOC began to emit calls many octaves lower than cetacean norm. The haunting, garbled sounds appeared very similar to human frequency speech. Such spontaneity is a first. As you can imagine, dolphins have been taught to mimic human language (along the lines of teaching the apes to sign), but this could be the one of the first instances of a beluga whale taking it upon itself to mock exemplify hominid sounds.
Sure, it’s amazing to hear a whale babble incoherently, but it gets better. Or creepier. Or maybe just closer to home.
Next: A male Asian elephant called Koshik was recorded ‘actually speaking Korean words’. Though his vocabulary is limited, Koshik can clearly be understood by other Korean speakers. It turns out that in the formative years of calf-hood, the elephant was only exposed to humans and human interaction. He was taught several simple commands (which I strongly suspect influenced his lopsidedly “commandy” current vocabulary. “Sit down” and “lie down” make up one third of the words he uses.)
Elephants are consummate mimickers. They sometimes emulate lyre birds and imitate manmade sounds such as car engines. That doesn’t make it any less creepy when you learn that Koshik reproduces his trainers down to their individual voices.
None of this comes natural to these animals by any means. There are plenty of extenuating circumstances that has led to their impersonations. Creating such sounds is obviously well outside what their bodies can produce naturally. A massive elephantine throat and the pitched nasal calls of belugas are hardly suited for the job. Both of the animals have to physically modify their ‘vocal apparatus’ to get the job done.
Koshik substitutes his trunk for mobile human lips. And it works startlingly well. He’s able to reproduce tone and enunciation to a degree that is unreal.
NOC had to increase the pressure in his nasal cavity to get it right. He over-inflated a few key elements of his anatomy (which doesn’t sound comfortable by any means) to reduce the pitch of his regular, screeched calls.
There’s a long distance between imitations and actual full-fledged language, of course. It’s a stretch between “Polly want a cracker” and “Hey, want me to drop by the local market for some chips?” But the implications are there. I thrive on implications.
Earth is changing around us. Storms are gettin’ bad and I’m ready to head for the hills when the coastline decides a change of scenery would be in order. Our perception of animal intelligence has also changed much over the last few decades. There’s simply a lot more to them than we once thought.
There’s still so much to learn. I hope we can stick around for the coming golden age in animal communication. Hell. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be part of the creation myth of the future elephant civilization?
*By “high-profile” I of course mean; candidates for sentient intelligence, or; our replacements.