Some animals, including parrots, songbirds, beluga whales, and dolphins, can mimic human speech. These animals are vocal learners and are adept at mimicking noises after hearing them. They may appear to be speaking, but they are excellent imitators. Now, let’s discover 7 amazing animals that can talk like humans!
What Makes Them Vocal Learners?
The forebrain is the area of the brain responsible for some animals’ ability to mimic speech. A study from the New York Academy of Sciences shows that the neural circuits in the forebrain enable animals to learn new sounds. They subsequently recreate these sounds using the muscles in their vocal tracts. Only a small number of animals have these circuits.
Some captive animals that are vocal learners pick up communication skills from people by mimicking their sounds and body language. In addition, they copy social cues from people around them. According to studies, this behavior results from a desire to interact with others.
A Case Study of Cross-Species Imitation
In the 2018 Ig Nobel Prize-winning research for anthropology, scientists observed five chimpanzees and almost 10,000 human visitors at the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden.
They discovered that the chimpanzees were equally inclined to mimic visitors as the other way around. They counted 2,211 instances of human behavior directed at chimpanzees and 1,579 cases of chimpanzee behavior directed at humans. Each species imitated another’s behavior about 10% of the time.
Further analysis of the data revealed that interactions with imitation lasted longer than those without it. This shows that imitation was an effective technique for the two species to establish and maintain social connections.
7 Amazing Animals That Can Talk Like Humans
Only three far-related mammal groups — humans, bats, and cetaceans — and three bird species — parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds — have been proven to possess the brain pathways required for vocal learning.
Here are 7 amazing animals capable of speech.
1. Alex the Parrot
Alex, an African gray parrot, was the subject of 30 years of research by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, an animal psychologist at the University of Harvard.
She started the groundbreaking study into the cognitive capacity of parrots in 1977, offering a fresh perspective on intelligence in nonhuman beings. For context, the parrot’s name was an acronym for Avian Learning EXperiment.
Parrots are known to have walnut-sized brains. Before the study, there was a widespread belief in the scientific community that because birds lack a primate brain, they can’t handle sophisticated mental activities.
Through Dr. Pepperberg’s innovative techniques, Alex mastered basic numbers and understood the notions of none, same/different, and bigger/smaller. The parrot also knew more than one hundred English labels that described items, shapes, colors, and materials.
In 2007, Alex died at a relatively young age of 31 (African Grays typically live up to 50 years). However, he was capable of two-way conversation and expression with people, despite Dr. Pepperberg’s claim that he couldn’t necessarily use words.
2. Lucy the Chimpanzee
The Institute for Primate Studies, University of Oklahoma, owned a two-year-old chimpanzee named Lucy. She was sent to live with Dr. Maurice Temerlin, a psychotherapist, and his wife, Jane. The Temerlins treated the infant chimp like a human baby.
Lucy learned how to eat regular meals using cutlery at the table. She could get dressed on her own and often opted to wear skirts. She could prepare tea for her parents and the researchers who raised and taught her.
Dr. Robert Fouts taught Lucy about 250 signs from American Sign Language. Dr. Fouts was one of the pioneering psychologists who taught Washoe the chimpanzee to communicate using ASL in 1967.
When Lucy was hungry, pleased, or hurt, she could speak with her hands and use them to indicate objects like an airplane, ball, and food.
Until 1977, when she was nearly 12 years old, the Temerlins raised Lucy as their daughter. At that point, they realized they needed to find Lucy a new home. So the Temerlins and research assistant Janis flew to Lucy’s new home with her to help the chimpanzee adjust to life in the wild.
The transition was, to say the least, unbearable for the Chimp. Her decomposing body was found in 1987, but the cause of death was unknown.
The documentary Lucy the Human Chimp, produced by HBO Max, was released in 2021.
3. Wikie the Orca
In 2018, researchers from British, Spanish, Chilean, and German universities published the findings of their study on Wikie, a 14-year-old female orca living in an aquarium in France. She had been taught to mimic another orca’s actions when a human gesture was shown.
Researchers trained Wikie to imitate three easy orca sounds by her three-year-old calf Moana. Then, they exposed her to five additional orca sounds she had never heard, like a creaking door.
Finally, Wikie heard three orca sounds made by a human and six human sounds, such as hi, Amy, ah ha, one, two, and bye-bye.
Whether an orca or a human made the sounds, the team discovered that Wikie could imitate them, mimicking all of the unique noises in just 17 attempts.
Wikie achieved all the human-made orca sounds and utterances on the first try, but only accurately pronounced hello in subsequent trials more than 50% of the time.
4. Koshik the Elephant
An elephant is definitely not an animal you were expecting to see on a list of amazing animals that can talk like humans! Nevertheless, we couldn’t resist the Korean-speaking ability of the male Indian elephant, Koshik. Footage of the animal at the Everland theme park in Yongin, South Korea, trended in 2012.
A researcher from the University of Vienna, Angela Stoeger-Horwath, said Koshik could make pitches and formants akin to human speech. All he has to do is put his trunk in his mouth to create a vocal tract.
Although he only used one word in the video chat (good), Koshik can say Korean words like “Annyong” (hello), “Aniya” (no), “Anja” (sit down), and “Nuo” (lie down).
5. Noc the Beluga Whale
In 1984, scientists at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego heard what seemed to be a human conversation inside a whale tank. Noc, a captive male beluga whale, was actually making the human-like calls.
Noc could mimic a human voice so convincingly that it could trick a diver into believing that someone was yelling at him to leave the water.
Subsequent analysis revealed that the wails of Noc had remarkably similar rhythms to human speech in terms of pattern and intonation.
Researchers taught Noc to “talk” on cue and they were able to observe how he changed the pressure and position of his “phonic lips” in his nasal cavities to produce noises that were far quieter than typical whale clicks and squeals.
6. Rocky the Orangutan
Rocky was an orangutan based at the Indianapolis Zoo, which helped researchers gain a fresh perspective on the origins of human speech. The group of researchers led by Dr. Adriano Lameira of Durham University discovered that orangutans could adjust their vocal range and converse in a manner comparable to that of humans.
The study’s subject imitated his caretakers’ speech to get their attention. Rocky’s attempt at vocalization, distinct from that of other orangutans, piqued the interest of researchers. Researchers named his peculiar sounds wookies after Chewbacca, a fictional character from Star Wars.
According to the findings published in 2016, Rocky went above and beyond by demonstrating his capacity to learn new calls, match the pitch of a human’s voice, and pair consonants with vowels.
7. Hoover the Seal
George Swallow adopted an orphaned baby seal found near the Maine shore in 1971. The Swallows raised the seal and kept him in their bathtub. He was transferred to a little pond when he outgrew the tub. He soon began to mimic George’s thick voice and Bostonian accent.
The seal was named Hoover because of his voracious appetite. When they could no longer feed him adequately, Hoover’s adoptive parents called the New England Aquarium in Boston to see if they had space for him.
At the aquarium, researchers discovered that Hoover’s guttural noises were an attempt to form words and phrases. For example, he could say his name, how are you, hurry, come over here, and get out here.
This brought him into the limelight and earned him features on Good Morning America, Reader’s Digest, National Public Radio, and The New Yorker.
In July 1985, he passed away at 14 due to complications from his yearly molt.
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- The Conversation, Available here: https://theconversation.com/chimps-like-to-copy-human-visitors-to-the-zoo-ig-nobel-prize-104978#
- The Guardian, Available here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/10/talking-animals-species-capable-of-speech-mimic-human-voice
- BBC Earth, Available here: https://www.bbcearth.com/news/the-orangutan-who-speaks-like-a-human
- NPR, Available here: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/14/518170608/orangutans-vocal-feats-hint-at-deeper-roots-of-human-speech