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Surprise! Elephants Have Been Listening to and Judging Us By Our Voices

Surprise! Elephants Have Been Listening to and Judging Us By Our Voices

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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2:36AM PST on Feb 24, 2015

thanks for sharing :)

3:51PM PDT on Jun 29, 2014

I TRULY LOVE ALL ANIMALS GREAT AND SMALL. THE ELEPHANTS I ADORE AND IT BREAKS MY HEART WHEN I HEAR THAT SO MANY HAVE BEEN KILLED. AND YES THEY ARE VERY SMART. WHEN A MOTHER LOOSES HER LITTLE ONE,ALL THE FAMILY FORMS A CIRCLE AROUND THE WEE ONE AND THEY MOURN . FROM GRANDFATHER COUSINS BROTHERS/SISTERS THE LIST GOES ON. AND I PRAY EVERY NIGHT THAT THESE ELEPHANT'S WILL NO LONGER BE KILLED OR ABUSED VERY SOON LIKE NOW!!!!! I LOVE YOU ALL DEAR SWEET ELEPHANT'S. THANKS A BUNCH FOR SHARING WITH US MICHAEL TAYLOR!!! Theresa R.

7:49AM PDT on Jun 13, 2014

There is something magical about elephants. Long may they prosper and enrich our world.

6:59PM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

And anyone who claims humans are intelligent, that is a lie

6:57PM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

Among thousands of good qualities, animals have one quality that makes them vastly superior to humans.. they don't have a good percentage of their population like humans do that are completely evil and without conscience.

6:47PM PDT on Apr 27, 2014

I really don’t wish to claim any special knowledge of elephants. What I do know is I love and respect them and somehow, I have always been aware just how special they are. Perhaps it is the contrast between their impressive size and evident gentle nature or it may have something to do with the fact that my half brother grew up in Africa and I have often listened to his stories about African wildlife.

I spend my professional life analysing human beings and a visit to the zoo gives me the opportunity to compare my knowledge of human beings with the non-humans I have met there, albeit in circumstances far removed for their natural state. In the presence of most non-human species. Meeting the great apes, the big cats and of course, elephants etc I just sense that I am sharing this planet with creatures who put us to shame in terms of their wisdom and superb adaptability. We should be prepared to listen and learn from them but instead we hunt and exploit them ......

4:33AM PDT on Apr 17, 2014

Elephants are intelligent animals and they communicate on many levels, verbally and with body language.

4:42AM PDT on Apr 12, 2014

Presumably ears that size are very sensitive and can pick up on all sorts of vibrations.

9:52PM PDT on Apr 3, 2014

Interesting, thank you.

10:35AM PDT on Mar 28, 2014

So now researchers know what the rest of us have always known, that all animals are intelligent, most more intelligent than the humans who are studying them.

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