A new study suggests that elephants might be even better at decoding human voices than we are.
The study, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was initially designed to find out whether the wild elephants of Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, could use the acoustic information contained in human language to distinguish the threat posed by the local Maasai tribes — an ethnic group known for its hunting practices — from the lesser threat posed by the agricultural Kamba ethnic group. In both cases, the recordings featured men saying “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” in their respective languages.
It didn’t take long for the scientists to realize that these elephants had no trouble figuring out which male voices were cause for alarm and which weren’t, so they upped the ante by having elephants listen to recordings of Maasai women, who rarely hunt, as well as men. Once again, the elephants had no trouble figuring out who posed a danger to their calves. When they heard the male voices, the elephants would bunch together defensively or retreat, but they barely budged when they heard a woman speak.
A third test revealed that the elephants didn’t feel threatened by the voices of Maasai boys either. “Elephants have this amazing ability to discern predators on a fine scale,” says Graeme Shannon, lead co-author of the study and a wildlife ecologist at Colorado State University. “They can ascribe different levels of threats to certain groups.”
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