Whether we realize it, African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are listening to us. The pachyderms can tell certain human languages apart and even determine our gender, relative age, and whether we’re a threat, according to a new study. The work illustrates how elephants can sometimes protect themselves from human actions.
“It is a most remarkable finding,” says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “Animals associating sounds with danger is nothing new—but making these fine distinctions in human voices is quite remarkable.”
Elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, where the study took place, are killed periodically by Maasai pastoralists. Maasai men sometimes spear the animals to protest park policies governing grazing and water rights, and sometimes in retaliation for tusking and trampling people or cattle. “Most of the time, the Maasai and elephants co-exist quite well,” says Karen McComb, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. “But spearings do occur, and it’s clear that the elephants are tuned into the Maasai in lots of ways.”
McComb and her colleagues wondered if the Amboseli elephants could make similar distinctions between the voices of the Maasai and Kamba people. The scientists recorded men from the two ethnic groups, as well as Maasai women and boys, saying “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” in their respective languages. (A Maasai man speaks the phrase in the audio file above.) From a concealed loudspeaker, the team then played back the voice recordings to 47 elephant family groups (which are composed of related adult females and their dependent young) while observing and videotaping the animals’ reactions.
Right “from the get-go, the elephants responded differently to the Maasai and Kamba male voices,” says study co-author Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. They were more likely to retreat and bunch together, forming a defensive fortress around their young, and to smell the air (raising their trunks skyward) if they heard an adult Maasai man speak. But their reaction was not nearly as defensive when the voice was that of a male Kamba. The animals were also much less fearful when presented with the voices of Maasai women or boys. The scientists also altered the recordings, making the adult male voices sound more female and vice versa. But the elephants weren’t fooled and remained vigilant, the scientists report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.