The ArgusElephants can identify human tribes by voice - and prefer women and children (From The Argus)

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Elephants can identify human tribes by voice - and prefer women and children

The Argus: Kenyan elephants Kenyan elephants

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.

Comments (4)

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8:46am Wed 12 Mar 14

Morpheus says...

What on earth is the point of this research? It's time the universities used our money to benefit the economy rather than fund "holidays" in Africa.
What on earth is the point of this research? It's time the universities used our money to benefit the economy rather than fund "holidays" in Africa. Morpheus
  • Score: 0

12:20pm Wed 12 Mar 14

Man of steel says...

Using emotionally neutral sound, my dog can understand quite a lot of English, but not one word of French.
Can I have my degree now please?
Using emotionally neutral sound, my dog can understand quite a lot of English, but not one word of French. Can I have my degree now please? Man of steel
  • Score: 2

8:18pm Wed 12 Mar 14

Minion says...

It's no more sophisticated than distinguishing between different bird sounds. If an animal couldn't tell the difference between other animal sounds I doubt it would survive.
It's no more sophisticated than distinguishing between different bird sounds. If an animal couldn't tell the difference between other animal sounds I doubt it would survive. Minion
  • Score: 0

10:38pm Wed 12 Mar 14

Roundbill says...

I quite fancy a holiday in New Zealand. It's a shame there aren't any charismatic megafauna. Charismatic megafauna is a thing now - it basically means cute, big animals: pandas, wolves, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) Pretty much all the research funding goes to charismatic megafauna - it's what the public put their hands in their pockets for. There's never been a "Save the Slug" campaign.
I quite fancy a holiday in New Zealand. It's a shame there aren't any charismatic megafauna. Charismatic megafauna is a thing now - it basically means cute, big animals: pandas, wolves, lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) Pretty much all the research funding goes to charismatic megafauna - it's what the public put their hands in their pockets for. There's never been a "Save the Slug" campaign. Roundbill
  • Score: 1

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