We already know African elephants are extremely intelligent, but new research has demonstrated they’re even more sophisticated than we thought and have learned to differentiate between different languages, ages and genders among humans and determine who poses a threat to them.
Researchers Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon from the University of Sussex recorded the voices of two different ethnic groups of people: the Maasai, who are herders who frequently have conflicts with elephants, and the Kamba, who rarely encounter them, saying “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.”
They then played the recordings to elephants at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. While the researchers don’t believe elephants understood the specific words being spoken, they found elephants could easily distinguish between the two groups and between people within those groups.
The results, which were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that elephants mostly ignored women and children from the Maasai, who were unlikely to cause them harm, along with Kamba men. However, when they heard the sound of Maasai men, they got defensive, huddled and sniffed the air to try and detect threats.
Even when the recordings were changed to give men and women the same pitch, elephants could still tell them apart.
According to a statement from the university, the ability to discriminate from real and perceived threats, particularly when it comes to humans, can impact their future survival by helping them avoid interruptions and unnecessary stress. Because we don’t all pose a threat to elephants, their ability to recognize voices gives them an advantage, especially if they can’t immediately see who is there.
A separate study of elephants in Kenya, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford, Save the Elephants, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, found that elephants in turn have a specific alarm call for humans.
In this case, when resting elephants were played recordings of the voices of local tribesmen, they reacted by making a low rumbling alarm call and running away. When other elephants were played recordings of the alarm calls, they reacted similarly.
Lucy King, a wildlife biologist with the University of Oxford, explained that the differences in alarm calls are the “equivalent to a change in vowel sounds in English words, such as the distinction between sounds of “boo” versus “bee.”
This study built on previous work that showed elephants have a specific alarm call for bees. Even though the alarm calls might sound the same to us, they’re making sounds at frequencies we can’t hear that change depending on how serious the threat is. Their reaction to humans resulted in different actions. The alarm call for humans didn’t result in them shaking their heads, like they would if they heard the alarm for bees.
Not only do these studies show that elephants continue to surpass our limited understanding of how sensitive, social and intelligent they are, but they could lead to a stronger understanding of how to reduce our conflicts with them and further conservation efforts. In some places, farmers have already taken advantage of elephants’ natural fear of bees by placing hives near their fences.
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