It seems that elephants, indeed, never forget

Thu, Mar 13, 2014, 01:00

Elephants can identify potentially threatening humans by their voices, it seems.

A new study from the University of Sussex worked with free-ranging African elephants ( Loxodonta africana ) in Amboseli National Park in Kenya and found that playbacks of voice recordings from two different ethic human groups prompted different reactions in the elephants.

When the elephants heard recordings of the Maasai, a group that sometimes comes into conflict with elephants, the elephants were likely to become defensive, bunching together, particularly if the voices were male.

But if a voice recording was played of the Kamba people, whose agricul- tural lifestyle tends to mean less conflict with elephants, the elephants didn’t appear to perceive such a threat.

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , suggests that the elephants “can use acoustic characteristics of speech to make functionally relevant distinctions between human subcategories differing not only in ethnicity but also in sex and age”.

Researcher Dr Graeme Shannon says that voice cues could offer an early warning.

“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,” he says 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.”