By Kounteya Sinha
LONDON: Elephants have a specific alarm call in response to the danger of humans — akin to words in human language that elephants voluntarily and purposefully make to warn others about specific threats.
Scientists have confirmed for the first time that elephants manipulate their vocal tract to shape the sounds of their rumbles to make different alarm calls.
A new study of wild elephants in Kenya by researchers from Oxford University carried out a series of audio experiments in which recordings of the voices of the Samburu, a local tribe from North Kenya, were played to resting elephants.
The elephants quickly reacted, becoming more vigilant and running away from the sound whilst emitting a distinctive low rumble.
When the team, having recorded this rumble played it back to a group of elephants they reacted in a similar way to the sound of the Samburu voices.
Dr Lucy King of Oxford University who led the study with Dr Joseph Soltis, a bioacoustics expert said: "Our research results here show that African elephant alarm calls can differentiate between two types of threat and reflect the level of urgency of that threat".
Significantly, the reaction to the human alarm call included none of the head-shaking behaviour displayed by elephants hearing the bee alarm. When threatened by bees elephants shake their heads in an effort to knock the insects away as well as running-despite their thick hides adult elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks, whilst calves could potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have yet to develop a thick protective skin.
Lucy explains: "Interestingly, the acoustic analysis showed that the difference between the 'bee alarm rumble' and the 'human alarm rumble' is the same as a vowel-change in human language, which can change the meaning of words. Elephants use similar vowel-like changes in their rumbles to differentiate the type of threat they experience, and so give specific warnings to other elephants who can decipher the sounds."