The Ancient Romans believed in a monster called the Crocotta. It was said to be a wolf-like beast, native to India or Ethiopia, with the ability to mimic human speech. When hungry, the Crocotta would hide near human villages or houses, and listen carefully to people’s conversations. Eventually it would learn someone’s name and call that person by his or her name, luring him into the woods and devouring him.
Although a cool and frightening concept, the Crocotta was nothing more than an exaggerated version of a real life beast, the hyena, a creature that can indeed make some eerie, human-like sounds, but is completely unable to mimic speech. Today, the spotted hyena’s scientific name (Crocuta crocuta) is a tribute to this legendary monster. There is, however, a certain predator that does mimic the “speech” of its victims to lure them to their doom.
It was recently discovered that the Margay, a small arboreal feline from Mexico, Central and South America, has the ability to mimic the calls of baby monkeys in distress. This, of course, attracts worried adult monkeys which can then be attacked and devoured by the Margay.
Scientists who witnessed this while doing research in Brazil just couldn’t believe their eyes, but natives were not surprised; they informed the scientists that Margays can also imitate the sounds of other animals, such as the tinamou (a flightless bird) and the agouti (a large rodent).
Even more, the natives claim that pumas and jaguars also use vocal mimicry to hunt once in a while. As if that wasn’t enough, people in India and Siberia have often reported that tigers can mimic deer calls to lure the unsuspecting herbivores into an ambush. Although this has yet to be confirmed by science, the Margay is the proof that it is not impossible after all.
According to the scientists who witnessed the Margay in action, “cats are known for their physical agility, but this vocal manipulation of prey species indicates a psychological cunning that merits further study”. At least we can be happy that cats have yet to learn how to mimic human speech…