Pachyderms are even cannier than zoologists previously realised.
Elephants in Africa have been dealing with people since people existed, for the first humans evolved in that part of the world 2m years ago. And they have been dealing with honeybees even longer—for those insects, which also evolved in Africa, have been around for at least 35m years. People and bees are more or less the only animals a full-grown elephant is scared of, so looking at the nuances of how they react to them is intriguing. Two papers published this week do just this. They show that elephants can recognise the languages of ethnic groups likely to be hostile to them, and of those which are not, and also that the beasts are able to warn each other about bees in a different way from the one they use to warn each other about people.
The Masai, Kenyans who often make their livings as herders, have a long history of spearing elephants because elephants compete with them—or, rather, with their cattle—for water holes and grazing. However, the Masai’s neighbours, the agriculturally inclined Kamba, rarely kill elephants. And elephants can tell the difference. They recognise Masai and Kamba both by appearance and by smell. A team led by Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex, in Britain, wondered if they might be able to distinguish the groups’ languages as well.
To find out, Dr McComb and Dr Shannon recorded Masai and Kamba men as they calmly said, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.” They then played the recordings to 48 groups of elephants to see what happened. They have just published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
When elephants heard the Masai, they sniffed around for danger 70% of the time and retreated or gathered together in protective bunches 60% of the time. When they heard the Kamba they sniffed only 25% of the time and retreated or bunched a mere 40% of the time. Moreover, in the case of the Masai, at least, it was male voices that were the most frightening. When the two researchers repeated their experiment with recordings of Masai women and children, the elephants tended to ignore them.
The alarm-call study was carried out by Joseph Soltis and Anne Savage, biologists at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in Florida, which, besides being a place of entertainment, has a research arm. They were also working in Kenya, in an area inhabited by the Samburu, who are, like the Masai, herders, and thus just about as popular with elephants, and vice versa.
Both Samburu and bees cause elephants to make deep rumbling sounds that can travel for miles, and serve to inform other elephants that trouble is around. Dr Soltis and Dr Savage found, as they describe in PLOS ONE, that these rumbles are different. Elephants rumble at 33Hz when they hear bees (the researchers used tape recordings, rather than releasing actual bee swarms) and at 39Hz when they hear Samburu. They also shake their heads when they are rumbling at bees, but not when they are rumbling at Samburu. Whether that is part of a bee-specific warning to their neighbours, or merely a pre-emptive attempt to drive away the annoying insects, no one knows.