An Asian elephant called Koshik has astounded scientists – by learning to speak Korean.
Researchers report that the mammal has learnt to imitate human speech and can say five words in Korean.
The zoo animal places the tip of his trunk into his mouth to transform his natural low rumble into a convincing impression of a human voice.
It means elephants join a growing list of animals able to mimic human speech, from parrots and mynah birds to the recently reported case of a human-sounding beluga whale.
The study’s lead author Dr Angela Stoeger, from the University of Vienna, said she first came across Koshik after videos of the elephant were posted on YouTube.
After making contact with his owners, she went to his home, Everland Zoo in South Korea, to study his unusual vocal talent.
Dr Stoeger said: “We asked native Korean speakers, who had never experienced the elephant before, to write down what they understood when we played back recordings from Koshik.”
They found that Koshik’s calls correlated to five Korean words: “annyeong” (hello); “anja” (sit down); “aniya” (no); “nuwo” (lie down) and “choah” (good).
But while Koshik sounds convincing, the researchers do not believe that he has any comprehension of the words that he is saying.
Instead, they think that the elephant took up talking as a way to bond with his human companions.