Elephants Distinguish Threat Level From People Based On Language
March 11, 2014

Elephants Distinguish Threat Level From People Based On Language

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A new study suggests that elephants are able to detect which humans pose a threat based on their voice and language.

Researchers at the University of Sussex studied family groups of African elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. They discovered that elephants can actually distinguish which ethnic groups are likely to cause harm to the herd by identifying the languages being used.

During the study, the team played sound recordings of the voices of two different human ethnic groups known to the elephants, including: the Maasai, who come into conflict with the elephants over access to water and cattle grazing; and the Kamba, who pose less of a threat to elephants.

When an elephant feels threatened, family groups tend to bunch together and investigate the threats through smelling. Findings revealed that elephants were more likely to demonstrate these defensive behaviors in response to male Maasai voices than male Kamba voices. The team also found that elephants were less defensive in response to voices of Maasai women and boys than to Maasai men, which indicates they specifically take into account the sex and age of the voice.

“Recognizing predators and judging the level of threat they pose is a crucial skill for many wild animals,” Professor Karen McComb, lead author of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a statement. “Human predators present a particularly interesting challenge, as different groups of humans can represent dramatically different levels of danger to animals living around them.”

Past research revealed that African elephants show signs of fear based on the scent of garments worn by Maasai or Kamba men. These studies have also discovered that elephants show signs of aggression when presented with the red clothes the Maasai men typically wear.

The researchers from the current study say that the acoustic cues elephants are able to pick up on have an additional advantage in serving as an effective early warning system. Moreover, finding that elephants were able to use fine-scaled voice differences to pinpoint whether the speaker was a man, boy or woman highlights how advanced these skills really are.

“The human language is rich in acoustic cues. The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages,” Dr Graeme Shannon, who co-authored the paper, said in a statement. “This apparently quite sophisticated skill would have to be learned through development or through younger family members following the lead of the herd’s matriarch and other older females.”