Research published last month in PNAS provides evidence that African elephants (Loxodonta africana) can differentiate human voices. This is a very important skill to an animal that is often threatened by humans. Prior research has shown that elephants could tell the difference between African ethnic groups using sight and scent.

The study was conducted by Drs. Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon (University of Sussex, Brighton, UK). They recorded men from two different Kenyan ethnic groups speaking in their native language the phrase “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.” The groups of men were from either the Maasai, a semi-nomadic group that sometimes kill elephants and the Kamda, crop farmers that rarely have violent contact with elephants. They then located and played back the voice recordings to 47 elephant groups in Kenya while observing their behavior. What they discovered was that Massai voices caused the elephants to smell the air or huddle together twice as tightly than when they heard the Kamba voices.

According to a quote from Fritz Vollrath (Zoologist, University of Oxford, UK) published in Nature, “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.”

What was even more interesting is that the elephants were less likely to run away when they heard Maasai women or boys speaking as compared to Maasai men. Study author McComb believes this fear of adult male Maasai may be learned as opposed to innate behavior. “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.” A study published in PLOS One supports this theory as elephants were found to adjust their vocal frequencies in response to vocal threats from humans vs bees.

Sources:

Soltis J, King LE, Douglas-Hamilton I, Vollrath F, Savage A. African Elephant Alarm Calls Distinguish between Threats from Humans and Bees. PLOS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089403

McComb K, Shannon G, Sayialel KN, Moss C. Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321543111

Video from Nature

Comments

  1. #1 Emelina Nizere
    Pretoria, South Africa
    April 16, 2014

    E. Nizere (14128846)

    I think this is just so fascinating but equally unsurprising. It is a known fact that elephant are very intelligent animals and this discovery can also serve as a means of better understanding the amazing memory capacity of elephants.
    It makes sense that this majestic beasts can recognize human voices.
    I can’t help but use this to explain how an angry elephant will still be able to associate you with the emotion even after some time has passed and to allow it to cool off.

    I am glad that time is being taken to fully comprehend animal behavior.

  2. #2 14048681
    Pretoria
    April 23, 2014

    I don’t think that this should be a surprise at all. When my dog’s eyes are closed when I talk to him, he will still know it’s me. It’s known that Elephants are far more intelligent animals. What really got me interested is that they were not as much affected by the women and the children’s voices. Their memory from past happenings amazes me – even more intelligent than we thought!

  3. #3 S Muchenje 14314216
    May 1, 2014

    The elephant brain has three times as many neurons as the human brain, which is probably why they are so intelligent. Elephants are empathetic and they suffer psychologically and socially after traumatic events. Because of these characteristics, I think elephants are able to understand human behaviour a lot more than other animals. Elephants can pick up the subtlest vocal cues to assess the level of a threat.
    I think it is very important for us to try and find out more about how elephants think and behave, so we can effectively protect them and their habitats.

  4. #4 U 14138060
    university of pretoria
    May 3, 2014

    Wow,the Elephants never sees to amaze us. I mean for the fact that they are able to recognise our clothing and vocals and actually differentiate from them, which one could be a threat to them and which one comes in peace. This a great skill because it will help them to escape threats without those people actually realising their special skill.its is also brilliant that they will be able to teach their offsprings thus making it possible to be passed on from generation to generation.
    Yes, one could say they are one of the animals that use their brains to survive the harsh habitat they live in before fighting. These animals have long been famous for their intelligence so it is no wonder they are able to do this. I hope we as humans can, in the future help them develop more skills.

  5. #5 K Maepane 14131162
    Pretoria South Africa
    May 3, 2014

    Elephants have higher chances of loss of habitat and are highly likely to be poached by humans, no wonder they have amplified senses and are highly vigilant. In the wild, the key to their survival is basically dependent on their memory. Their life span is pretty long, so they can recall their encounters with humans or any other animal. Their good memory together with the fact that they can detect sounds as low as 14 to about 16 hz, helps them differentiate human voices. They truly are impeccable animals.

  6. #6 u14138060
    university of [retoria
    May 5, 2014

    wow,the Elephant never sees to amaze us. I mean for the fact that they are able to recognise our clothing and vocals and actually differentiate from them,which one one could be a threat to them and which one comes in peace.This is a great skill because it will help them to escape threats without those people actually realising their special skill.It is also brilliant that they will be able to teach their off-springs thus making it possible to be passed on from generation to generation.
    Yes,one could say they are one of the animals that use their brains to survive the harsh habitat they live in before fighting. These animals have long been famous for their intelligence,so it is no wonder they can do this.I hope we as humans can, in the future help them develop more skills.,