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Parroting Elephants

Did you know parrots have something in common with elephants?

They are both "vocal learners". Like humans, they learn to make their vocal signals by imitating another member of their species.

Vocal learning is rare among animals. The sounds of most animals are innate. A dog, for instance, knows how to bark even if it never hears another dog. Aside from humans, scientists thought that only dolphins, whales, several groups of birds and a few bats learned their vocal signals by copying the sounds of others. One study suggests that elephants could be the newest addition to this select club.

Scientists in Kenya studied an orphaned elephant that began imitating truck sounds after being relocated to an enclosure near a highway. In a second case, an African elephant started copying Asian elephants calls when they were moved into his building at a zoo, although he'd never heard Asian elephants before.

Vocal learning may help animals adapt quickly to changing social environments. This is especially important for animals that live in interdependent or mobile groups. Like pet parrots that start to mimic the calls of their human "flocks", elephants might use vocal imitation to fit in with a new herd if they become separated from their old one.

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