Elephants Can Tell Human Age, Gender, And Ethnicity Just By Listening To Their Voices
Elephants have keen eyes, ears, and noses for all kinds of predators, and that includes the human variety. But biologists never knew just how discerning their hearing could be until a team of researchers tested a group of African elephants in Kenya recently. It turns out they can distinguish the age, gender, and ethnicity of humans, just by listening to them say a single sentence.
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Certain tribes, genders, and ages are more aggressive toward elephants than others in rural Africa. Maasai men, for example, tend to pose a greater threat than do Kamba men, according to National Geographic. Men are more dangerous than women and children. Elephants gauge the relative threat levels of lions, too. Based on their reading of a situation, they fight or flee. Already, scientists knew that elephants could differentiate tribes based on the colors of their clothing, suggesting a finely tuned visual sense. But "vocalizations potentially provide a much richer source of information," wrote the authors of a new study in this week's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Their hypothesis was that elephants could process information about potential human threats by the noises they made. To test it, they traveled to Amboseli National Park, in Kenya, with a tape recording of Maasai and Kamba people of different ages and genders speaking a single sentence: "Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming." One can imagine harmless tourists and murderous poachers uttering these same lines.
The elephants responded incredibly: when Maasai men spoke, they immediately fell into their defensive formation, according to the study. They weren't even fooled by a digital manipulation of a man's voice to sound like a woman's. "Our results demonstrate that elephants can reliably discriminate between two different ethnic groups that differ in the level of threat they represent, significantly increasing their probability of defensive bunching and investigative smelling following playbacks of Maasai voices," the researchers wrote. This was the first time that such a large-brained and long-lived wild animal had been tested for such acute cognitive ability.
"That subtle discrimination is easy for us to do, but then we speak human language," Richard Byrne, a cognitive biologist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, told. Byrne was not involved in the research. "It's interesting that elephants can also detect the characteristic differences between the languages."
So how do they do it? Elephants and humans have had a contentious history over thousands of years, with poachers long coveting the animals' meat and ivory tusks. In one example, National Geographic related the story of an elephant that killed a Maasai woman in 2007. In retaliation, a group of Maasai men went out and speared and left for dead the first elephant they saw. The researchers contend that the ability to discriminate between groups of people based on their voices and language is an evolutionary culmination. In other words, over millennia, the most intelligent elephants lived longer, reproduced more often, and passed their smarts down to the next generation.
Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock
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