Elephants – now in your language class

“Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming!” Next time you are on a safari, you might not want to say these words if you’d like to snap a photo. Or at least not in Maasai: new research shows that elephants in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya are able to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba voices, and run away from Maasai men – but not from Kamba men, or Maasai women.

Young elephant in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa.
Young elephant in Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa.

Probably everyone who has been face-to-face with these giant animals, looking so unlike other mammals, has been fascinated by elephants. But such encounters are not always without risk, not only for humans, but also for elephants themselves. Maasai whio herd their cattle in in the Amboseli National Park often come into conflict with elephants over access to water. Occasionally, elephants will kill cattle and even people, and Maasai warriors retaliate through – often lethal – spear attacks on elephants. Elephants therefore have a reason to be fearful of Maasai men, but not women. The Kamba, also living in the Amobseli National Park, are mostly farmers. As Kamba rarely engage in conflict with elephants, they do not usually pose a threat to elephants.

Elephants in Madikwe Game Reserve.
Elephants in Madikwe Game Reserve.

Researchers from the University of Sussex used this juxtaposition to test whether elephants in Amboseli are able to tell apart Maasai and Kamba, men and women, young and old, only by their speech. The researchers played recordings of “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” recorded by Maasai and Kamba in their own languages to groups of female elephants, and observed the elephants’ reactions. Previous research has shown that elephants react to threat by bunching together in defense, smelling the air to investigate and retreating. Somewhat surprisingly, elephants distinguish between the Maasai and Kamba languages: When they hear a recording by Maasai men, elephants group together and smell investigatively, anticipating a threat. But when played a recording by Kamba men, these defense reactions are much rarer. Elephants also distinguish between men, women, and young boys, as they rarely react defensively when hearing a recording by Maasai women or Maasai boys, who herd cattle and frequently encounter elephants.

Elephants are considered one of the most cognitive advanced animals. The paper published this week in PNAS shows that elephants can also make very subtle distinctions between voices, even distinguishing between different languages, based on the level of threat speakers pose to them. The researchers also note that elephants react differently to human voices than to lion roars – while elephants retreat in response to Maasai men, they approach to recordings of lion roars. Retreating from humans probably allow elephants to avoid the threat, while aggressive mobbing can drive off lions. It is a remarkable achievement, which allows elephants to adapt to changes in the environment and the society they are faced with it. This off-sets at least some of the disadvantage they suffer from their long generation time and slow population growth in a changing environment. Let’s hope that by being clever, elephants will be around for a long time.

Research paper in PNAS: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/05/1321543111