Dr Mukta Chakraborty of Duke University said: \”This finding opens up a huge avenue of research in parrots, in trying to understand how parrots are processing the information necessary to copy novel sounds and what are the mechanisms that underlie imitation of human speech sounds. \”
Parrots are one of the few animals considered \’vocal learners\’ meaning they can imitate sounds. But why some birds are better than others has until now remained a mystery. One explanation had been brain size but by examining gene expression patterns, the new study published in PLOS ONE found that parrot brains are structured differently than the brains of songbirds and hummingbirds, which also exhibit vocal learning. In addition to having defined centres in the brain that control vocal learning called \’cores,\’ parrots have what the scientists call \’shells,\’ or outer rings, which are also involved in vocal learning. The shells are relatively bigger in species of parrots that are well known for their ability to imitate human speech, the group found. Previous research has only looked at the budgerigar but the new study examined the brains of eight parrot species besides the budgerigar, including conures, cockatiels, lovebirds, two species of Amazon parrots, a blue and gold macaw, a kea and an African Grey parrot.
The researchers looked for specific gene markers that are known to have specialised activity in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. They compared the resulting gene expression patterns in all the parrot brains with neural tracing experiments in budgerigars. It found the most ancient parrot the Kea of New Zealand has a rudimentary shell structure suggesting the populations of neurons in the shells probably arose at least 29 million years ago. It had been assumed the regions surrounding the cores had nothing to do with vocal learning but the findings support the group\’s hypothesis that in humans and other song-learning animals, the ability to imitate arose by brain pathway duplication. As most of the bird\’s vocal learning brain regions are tucked into areas that also control movement and these areas also showed some special patterns of gene expression. It is speculated this might explain why some parrots are also able to learn to dance to music. \”The question is, how specialised are these parrot brains, and in what ways? Is it just a select group of specialised genes, or is it some specific projections that we haven\’t discovered yet? \” Further studies will examine whether the shells give parrots a greater ability to imitate human speech.
When you think of animals that can speak like humans, parrots and similar birds are the first to come to mind. Elephants are slowly revealing that they, too, are capable of human speech with some creative positioning of their trunks. They ve also been found to be able to mimic sounds common to their environments, like the drone of traffic. And still other animals are showing signs of trying to speak a beluga whale was recorded attempting human speech patterns. It s been well documented that parrots and other birds can mimic human speech, with many learning not just to say words but how to use them correctly. They re not the only animals that have learned how to speak, though. An elephant named Koshik lives in the Everland Zoo in South Korea, and his keepers realized that the sounds he was making were very, very familiar. The shape of an elephant s mouth isn t naturally conducive to being able to form human words, but Koshik began using his trunk to shape his mouth in order to form human words, beginning with the words for Бhello, Бsit down, Бno, Бlie down,Б and Бgood. In order to determine whether the elephant was actually speaking or keepers were simply getting familiar with his communication, native Korean speakers were asked to listen to recordings of the dialogue to see if they could understand it.
And they could. Koshik hasn t just figured out how to make words, but he s also matching pitch and timbre of conversational speech, and that s not a small accomplishment for an elephant. Elephants have an incredibly wide pitch range when it comes to communicating, and they re capable of making sounds that we can t even hear. Elephants in Kenya have been found to mimic other sounds, especially including the sound of traffic. In fact, they re so good at it that zoologists working with them took a while to catch on that some of the sounds were coming from elephants and that they weren t actually being made by nearby cars. Asian and African elephants have distinctly different ways of communicating as well, but they re also so good at mimicry (and picking up other kinds of communication) that an African elephant living with Asian elephants in a Switzerland zoo has all but abandoned his Бnative languageБ in favor of the chirps of an Asian elephant. The researchers involved with the Korean-speaking Koshik aren t really sure what he s doing to get his mouth to form the words, but they re pretty sure he doesn t actually understand what he s saying.
It s thought that he began speaking as a way to bond with his trainers and his keepers, in part because for seven years he was the zoo s only elephant, and his human companions were the only ones that he had to talk to. And Koshik isn t the first example of an animal mimicking speech in order to attempt communication with the humans around them. A beluga whale named NOC was a lifelong resident at the US National Marine Mammal Foundation, where he lived from 1977 until his death in 2007. By 1984, recordings taken underwater were capturing what sounded like a few people talking from some distance away. A diver who was swimming with NOC until he heard someone telling him to get out raised the question of where these words were coming from. They were coming from the whale, who had figured out how to manipulate the skin around his blowhole and regulate the pressure in his nasal cavity to mimic human speech. His attempts at communication which were also interpreted as reaching out to try to form a bond with the humans around him only lasted for about four years, until he apparently decided it wasn t worth the effort and went back to more whale-like sounds.