On the main trunk road: the elephant that imitates traffic noises

An elephant who can mimic the noise of a passing truck so well it was difficult to tell the two sounds apart has given scientists insights into the superior intelligence of the gentle giants.

An elephant who can mimic the noise of a passing truck so well it was difficult to tell the two sounds apart has given scientists insights into the superior intelligence of the gentle giants.

The calls of Mlaika, an orphaned 10-year-old female kept in semi-captivity, were clear imitations of the distant noises of trucks she heard on a road two miles from her night-time stockade in Tsavo, Kenya, scientists said.

Zoologists say the discovery shows that elephants have a much wider repertoire of sounds and vocalisations than hitherto believed, which indicates they are capable of far more subtle communication than was once supposed.

A scientific analysis of Mlaika's calls showed they were based on the same range of sound frequencies emitted by a truck's engine as it travelled along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

Scientists, led by Joyce Poole of the Ambolesi Trust for Elephants in Nairobi, believe that the discovery of vocal mimicry in elephants shows they have a natural ability to imitate each other's sounds to strengthen social bonds within a family group.

In a study published today in the journal Nature, the researchers report they have discovered a similar ability to imitate alien sounds in a 23-year-old male African elephant who has lived for 18 years at Basle Zoo in Switzerland with two female Asian elephants.

Calimero was recorded making the same high-pitched "chirping" sounds produced by female Asian elephants. The chirps have never been recorded in wild African males, Dr Poole said: "He was probably trying to be part of that social group and to join in with them. Eventually it became about the only sounds he made."

Vocal mimicry in animals is relatively rare and is usually confined to marine mammals, birds, bats and primates. Scientists believe the ability to imitate sounds indicates the importance of vocalisation to form bonds within a social group or to advertise sexual availability, such as birdsong.

But it is only when an animal starts to mimic an alien sound, such as pet parrot talking in its owner's voice, that the mimicry becomes apparent. Crows have been recorded imitating the sound a creaking farm gate and a captive seal in a Boston zoo has been heard saying "hello" with a Boston accent.

Mlaika emitted the truck-like calls for several hours after sunset, the best time for the transmission of low-frequency sounds in the African savannah, said Stephanie Watwood, a member of the research team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

"Often the first time you get to know about vocal learning is when you get an animal learning something outside of their normal repertoire of sounds," Dr Watwood said. "They can learn to imitate the sounds they hear around them. It's a bit like a parrot learning a song or a phrase they hear spoken to them."

Elephants are known to produce much deeper, ultrasonic noises that are difficult to hear with the human ear. It is believed that these calls, which can be heard over long distances, are used to communicate between family groups many miles away.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little