March 29, 2005
The 10,000-Pound Parrot
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
In Rosanne Cash's country song "My Baby Thinks He's a Train," the evidence for the title's conclusion is compelling. As Ms. Cash sings, "He makes his whistle stop, then he's gone again."
In Kenya, a 10-year-old elephant named Mlaika seems to think she's a truck. At least she has been heard imitating the low rumble that trucks make on a nearby highway.
Mlaika's mimicry is described in the journal Nature, along with a report of an African elephant that lived in a Swiss zoo with Asian elephants and learned to imitate the chirping that only the Asian species makes.
The two findings show for the first time that elephants - like primates, birds, bats and some marine mammals - are capable of vocal learning. The discovery has important implications for understanding how elephants communicate.
Dr. Joyce Poole, research director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya and an author of the Nature paper, said that in 1998 she was invited to visit an orphaned group of elephants at Tsavo National Park in southern Kenya.
"The keeper there said one was making a very strange sound," said Dr. Poole, who has been studying elephant communication for about two decades.
The sound, she said, was "nothing like I'd ever heard an elephant make before." Audio Clip (wav format)
The elephants lived about two miles from the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and Dr. Poole said she could not distinguish between the elephant and the highway sounds.
"I began to get suspicious that maybe she was imitating the trucks on the highway," she said. Analysis by specialists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution showed that the two sounds were extremely similar.
Dr. Poole said Mlaika might have been bored in her stockade at night and made the sounds to amuse herself. The elephant in Switzerland, on the other hand, may have made the chirping noises to communicate with companions.
Either way, the findings reinforce current thinking about elephant communication.
Elephants have strong family bonds even though groups split up from time to time. One theory, never proven, is they imitate the voices of those they are close to in order to strengthen those bonds. By imitating a truck, Dr. Poole said, Mlaika showed that it might be possible for elephants to imitate one another.
Correction: April 1, 2005, Friday:
An article in Science Times on Tuesday about an elephant that imitates the sound of trucks misidentified the writer of the song "My Baby Thinks He's a Train." It is by LeRoy Preston. (Rosanne Cash performed it. And the original title was "My Baby Thinks She's a Train.")
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company