When we think of animals that can speak, or more accurately mimic human speech the first ones that come to mind are birds. Parrots are well-known mimickers with the more famous ones, like Alex—who was the subject of a thirty-year-long study—learning many words and short phrases.
There are other animals around the world that have shown the ability to mimic human speech. Some are individuals of a species while others are entire species with the ability to mimic.
This post will review some of the unexpected animals capable of copying human speech patterns.
Fellow members of the primate family have shown the ability to mimic human speech. Rocky, an eight-year-old orangutan who lives at the Indianapolis Zoo surprised his handlers when he demonstrated an ability to create vocal sounds similar to humans. Vocal sounds that had been previously unheard of in other orangutans. Smarter than the average animal, Rocky began mimicking the sounds he heard his caretakers make in order to get treats. He was the main subject of a study—along with other orangutans—conducted by Dr. Adriano Lameira of Durham University who proved that orangutans could create human-like speech sounds.
Outside the primate family, other mammals have shown the ability to mimic human speech patterns. Orca whales specifically were part of a recently published study proving that they can make complex, human-like speech sounds. Another whale, a beluga named Noc was found to be able to create sounds that sounded to his researchers at the National Marine Mammal Foundation like people talking inside his tank. Upon further investigation, they discovered that what they thought was the sound of people talking was actually Noc mimicking what he had heard while in captivity.
Similar to Alex the parrot, other birds that have been known for their ability to mimic human sounds are the lyrebirds. These Australian natives have been known to mimic other birds and sounds they hear throughout the forest. In captivity, however, at least one lyrebird named Chook was able to say things like “Hello, Chook.” Unfortunately, this talented bird died at the age of thirty-two in 2011. Captive lyrebirds have also been known to mimic the sound of machinery, such as a camera shutter. There is no telling the extent of this amazing ability without further study. There are numerous other species of birds that are able to mimic human speech. In addition to the parrot family, which includes cockatoos and parakeets, other birds’ capable mimicry include starlings, mockingbirds, and corvids.
One of the more surprising animals who has learned to reproduce human speech is Koshik the Asian Elephant. His handlers first noticed this ability in him in 2004, and he has since learned to vocalize five different Korean words. Researchers began to study Koshik in 2010 and studies have suggested since that he doesn’t understand the words he is saying. His trainers think that he started doing it because he was lonely, having been separated from other elephants at only five years old.
Back in the land of sea creatures is a seal named Hoover. In 1971 he was found in Maine and subsequently raised by the couple who found him until he became too large to house in their swimming pool. When they took him to a local wildlife center they explained that the beloved pet could talk. Although caretakers at the centre didn’t believe them, it soon became apparent that Hoover could indeed mimic the sounds necessary to produce several phrases such as, “hey”, “hello there”, and “how are ya.” Not only that, he said them all with a Bostonian accent he picked up from his adoptive family. Hoover lived until 1985 when he was honored with an obituary in Boston Globe.
All of these animals have one thing in common. They may be able to sound like humans, but their communication is not really communication at all. In the same way that you or I can whistle like a bird, we can not convey a specific message to a bird using whistles. Animals that can mimic human speech are making the sound they have heard, but they still lack the ability to effectively communicate with us in this way. Even if they understand certain commands, or in the case of primates are able to learn sign language. One thing these animals are teaching us is how to unlock the complexities of vocal cords capable of speech, by studying them we can learn more about the world around us and about ourselves.