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Elephants are Acute Listeners of Human Voices

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The 1967 Disney classic, The Jungle Book, provided the American populace (and unfortunately the Republican party) with one of our most favorite adages: “An elephant never forgets.” Despite championing this particular phrase multiple times throughout the movie, the writers also consistently mock the quotation, turning the elephants into cantankerous old fools. If only the writers knew how correct they were in their initial assessment.

A new study released by scientists at the University of Sussex in England does indeed support the popular adage. Study author Karen McComb and fellow scientists traveled to Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where hundreds of elephants live alongside human populations, in order to study whether or not elephants have a discerning ear for human voices. The results were overwhelmingly yes.

In order to test said hypothesis, McComb and researchers recorded two different Kenyan tribes saying the phrase, “”Look over there. A group of elephants is coming.” The two tribes were the Maasai and Kamba. The Maasai are a nomadic tribe who often come into contact with elephants and compete with the animals for resources such as water and grazing lands. On the other hand, the Kamba are a farming tribe who rarely come into contact with the elephants.

When the elephants heard the recordings of the Maasai men, they reacted defensively in a two to one margin. The adult elephants would gather closer together to protect the calves and would raise their trunks in the air to smell for potential danger. When the elephants heard the recordings of the Kamba men, however, almost no threat response was recorded.

“We knew elephants could distinguish the Maasai and Kamba by their clothes and smells, but that they can also do so by their voices alone is really interesting,” stated Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at the University of Oxford.

“They’re using vocal information from another species – us – and they’re using that to discern threat. That takes really advanced cognitive abilities. … These are subtle differences these elephants are attending to,” study co-author Graeme Shannon reported.

In order to test the validity of the experiment, the scientists decided to expose the elephants to voices of Maasai and Kamba women and young boys as well. For all of the non adult and male recordings, the elephants had virtually no defensive response.

The scientists even attempted to trick the elephants by digitally distorting the female voices to make them more masculine and the male voices to turn them more feminine. While the researchers thought their antics clever, the elephants were not deceived.

“It’s not so much that they can tell male from female voices, but that they tell the two languages apart and are not fooled by digital manipulation of the voice, which suggests that they use different gender cues than we do — or probably do,” says Frans de Waal, an animal behaviorist at Emory University.

The scientists attribute the ability to distinguish between threatening and non-threatening human voices to an elephant’s excellent memory. Some elephants can live up to 60 years. This, in combination with the fact that elephants have a massive, 10.5 pound brain, helps an elephant remember more things than most other mammals. This fantastic memory is most likely an evolutionary adaptation which “comes from desert-adapted elephants, where the matriarchs remember where reliable water can be found and are able to guide their herds to water over very long distances, and over the span of many years. This is a pretty clear indication that elephants have a great ability to remember details about their spatial environment for a very long time.”

The study conducted by the scientists at Amboseli National Park corroborates the adage that “An elephant never forgets.” Elephant families led by a matriarch of 42 years or older never fled when hearing the voice of a Maasai boy, but 40 percent of elephant families led by matriarchs younger than 42 years old did flee at the sound of a non-threatening figure. “Even though spearings by Maasai have declined in recent years, it’s still obvious that fear of them is high. This is likely down to younger elephants following the lead of their matriarchs who remember spearings from long ago,” states McComb.

Moral of the story: Don’t piss an elephant off. It will remember all your distinguishing characteristics.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Elephants are Acute Listeners of Human Voices
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