10 Most Unusual Animal Vocal Mimics

The animal kingdom is full of vocal mimics, including some who use the skill to cleverly outwit others.

Polly may want a cracker, but other animal vocal mimics use their talent to get a lot more, suggests a new study published in the journal Science.

Case in point: a clever African bird known as the fork-tailed drongo copies the warning calls of meerkats, southern pied babbler birds, and other animals, according to the study. As fooled individuals flee, the fork-tailed drongo steals their food. It would be comparable to a person yelling, "Fire!" in a restaurant, and then staying put to grab all of the vittles after the diners ran out the door.

Researchers at The Dolphin Institute in Hawaii report that "dolphins appear to be the only species, other than humans, capable of both reliable vocal and behavioral mimicry." Behaviors are easier for dolphins, which can mimic all sorts of human dance moves, such as backward bends, tail lifts (when a person lifts a leg) and spins. In terms of vocal mimicry, they can imitate almost any whistle. A bottlenose dolphin taught to associate a particular whistle for "sargassum" even recently made that whistle after encountering some of the seaweed as it swam in the wild.

Koshik, an adult male Asian elephant, has learned to reproduce at least five Korean words: "annyeong" (hello), "anja" (sit down), "aniya" (no), "nuwo" (lie down) and "joa" (good). The feat was documented in the journal Current Biology. Tecumseh Fitch, a professor of cognitive biology at the University of Vienna, and his colleagues believe that Koshik understands what the words mean.

"It's just that when he utters them, he doesn't seem to intend them as commands -- or at least when he says 'lie down,' he doesn't seem to get upset if you don't lie down!" Fitch told Discovery News.

A harbor seal named Hoover, who was raised by a Maine couple, reportedly vocalized many words and phrases, including "Hoover," "hey," "hello there," "how are ya," "get outta here," and "get down." He became famous for this at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where the couple-George and Alice Swallow- took Hoover when he got too big for their care. Hoover even received his own obituary in the Boston Globe when he passed away in 1985.

The superb lyrebird is possibly the world's most talented mimic. Its copying is incredibly accurate, and is not limited to living creatures. While superb lyrebirds do imitate other birdcalls, they will also copy human sounds, such as camera shutters and car alarms. Like an audio recorder, these birds can "play back" almost everything that they hear.

A wild cat known as the margay can imitate the call of its prey: a tiny monkey called the pied tamarin. Researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Federal University of Amazonas documented the vocal mimicry while they were working in a Brazilian forest. Margays emit the call, which brings curious and confused monkeys out of hiding. The margay then pounces, hoping for a monkey meat feast.

Like margays, pet cats can mimic sounds made by their intended prey, usually consisting of small birds. Cats will chatter, trying to mirror bird vocalization rhythms. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that some cats can say human words and phrases. "Tiggy the Talking Cat," for example, had an impressive show biz career for a while, making her human-like noises on shows on "Animal Planet" and other TV programs.

Many dogs featured in viral video clips online and on TV shows demonstrate their skill at copying human words and phrases. When asked, "Do you want your momma," a dog named Fluffy could reply, "I want my momma." The phrase "I love you" appears to be the most common one that owners train their dogs to say.

Male gray catbirds mimic all sorts of sounds, including cat meows (hence their name), whistles, squeaks, gurgles, snorts, whines and more. They can then string them together into long songs that may last several minutes. Gray catbirds are related to mockingbirds and thrashers, which are two other birds with amazing vocal abilities.

Many beluga whales seem to have the gift of gab, mimicking humans around them. A study in the journal Current Biology noted that "occasionally the calls would suggest a crowd of children shouting in the distance." At Vancouver Aquarium in Canada, a beluga whale could say his name, "Lagosi."

A beluga whale at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego said the word "out," according to yet another paper in the same journal. Researchers theorize that the whale heard the word "out" so much that he simply copied it. At first, divers who serviced the whale's tank thought another person was talking nearby, until they figured out it was the beluga whale.