By Henry Holloway
Researchers from the University of Sussex have discovered that elephants in Kenya can distinguish between people’s language and voices.
The team, led by Professor Karen McComb and Dr Graeme Shannon, carried out the study in Amboseli National park in Kenya by playing emotionally neutral sound recordings of different human ethnic groups to families of African elephants.
It was discovered that when elephants hear the voices of members of the Maasai tribe, who they come into conflict with over water, they display defensive behaviour, yet when they hear the voices of the Kamba tribe, they remain relaxed.
Professor Karen McComb, mammal communication expert and lead author of the study, said: “They are fantastic animals to work with and the more I do so, the more I appreciate them – they can use subtle cues to pinpoint threats.
“Recognising predators and judging the level of threat they pose is a crucial skill for many wild animals.
“Human predators present a particularly interesting challenge, as different groups of humans can represent dramatically different levels of danger to animals living around them.”
The behaviour study also showed that elephants have the capacity to distinguish between ethnicity, gender and age of the tribesman – reacting more favourably to Maasai women and children.
Professor McComb said that the skill of distinguishing languages is one that is also passed down to the younger elephants by the adults.
Graeme Shannon, co-author, said: “The human language is rich in acoustic cues.
“The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages.
"This apparently quite sophisticated skill would have to be learned through development or through younger family members following the lead of the herd’s matriarch and other older females.”
The study was published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, March 10, 2014.