Elephants Learn to Mimic

March 24, 2005

Elephants are capable of vocal learning and mimicry, according to a Brief Communication in the March 24, 2005 Nature. An ability shown by bats, birds, primates and marine mammals, vocal imitation is thought to be used within complex social groups to strengthen and maintain individual bonds when animals separate and reunite.

Peter Tyack and colleagues analysed examples of vocal imitation by African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) living in different locations. The first elephant, Mlaika, a 10-year-old adolescent female residing in Tsavo, Kenya, was recorded making truck-like sounds. Trucks can sometimes be heard from Mlaika's night stockade, which lies 3 km from the Nairobi-Mombassa highway. Mlaika’s truck-like calls were significantly different in all respects from the normal calls made by African elephants. The second elephant, Calimero, is a 23-year-old male who spent 18 years living with two female Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland. Unlike their African counterparts, Asian elephants typically communicate using chirping sounds. Calimero now emulates these chirp-like calls almost to the point of excluding all other sounds. The researchers say that as far as they know, this is the first time this kind of vocal learning has been displayed in a non-primate land mammal.

Abstract © 2005 Nature

“Elephants prove capable of vocal learning,” Joyce H. Poole, Peter L. Tyack, Angela S. Stoeger-Horwath, Stephanie Watwood, Nature, March 24, 2005

Joyce H. Poole, Amboseli Elephant Research Project, Sandefjord, Norway