Elephants Can Distinguish Between Human Languages

Elephants Can Distinguish Between Human Languages

Elephants hearing human voices can identify language, gender, and age.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America shows evidence that elephants presented with recordings of humans speaking different local languages react differently based on the language spoken, as well as the gender and age of the speaker. Using hidden loudspeakers, researchers played recordings of a variety of people saying the phrase "Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming" in the Maasai and Kamba languages, to over 40 groups of wild elephants. Elephants hearing adult male Maasai voices responded very defensively, while those hearing other voices did not exhibit such strong reactions.

Elephants and humans in Africa have a troubled and often violent coexistence. Human-on-elephant violence, often for poaching, has decimated many elephant populations, and shattered the long-lived animals' social groups; with evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and strongly anti-social behavior in some surviving animals. In some cases, this has led elephants to react violently towards humans and their property, which leads to further retaliatory killings of elephants.

Certain groups of people pose more of a threat to elephants than others. The Maasai people, a semi-nomadic herding tribe famed for their facility at killing lions with spears, also have a history of spearing elephants, whether for food, retaliation, or even as a form of political protest. It has already been demonstrated that elephants tend to flee from people dressed in the traditional red robes of Maasai warriors, and the new study wished to find if the same advanced discrimination between human ethnic groups could use voice recognition. For the study, Maasai voices were compared with those of the Kamba, a farming culture that has much less violent interaction with elephants.

The researchers found that adult male Maasai voices would cause elephants to bunch up defensively around their young and sniff the air; while female or young male voices, or adult male voices speaking Kamba, did not cause such behavior. Even altering the voices to make males sound more like females, or females more like males, did not fool the elephants. Elephant matriarchs, the leaders of the elephant herds, all appeared able to make the distinction between Maasai and Kamba voices, while older elephants were better at picking up on subtler cues such as gender and age.

Lest this article inadvertently demonize the Maasai, the author would like to note that the Maasai are a pastoral people who live around and interact with wild animals on a day-to-day basis in a way that most Western readers can probably not fully comprehend. Although they do spear and kill elephants on an individual basis, the Maasai should not be confused with larger scale commercial poachers, who indiscriminately slaughter entire herds of elephants using machine guns and grenades. The significance of this study is the evidence that it provides that elephants are a highly intelligent species that can learn to distinguish between sub-groups of a predator population and adjust their reactions accordingly.

Sources: PNAS, LA Times


Fascinating. Stories like this make me wish I had taken biology.
It's unfortunate we'll propably have killed them all in a few years. Observing them and the way they perceive humans is one of the few occasions where we can really learn something about how minds operate.

Reminds me of that dolphin that mimicked human sounds.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that perhaps some of the cultures the are actively buying ivory need to legitimately question whether they should continue buying ivory. We did this in the west with fur coats in the 70's and 80's and rather than continuing with the Cultural Relativity bullshit it should be made clear to all people the cost of their trinkets.

I'm not arguing clearly because wanton slaughter of animals really pisses me off. Seriously though, we don't need ivory, but elephants do. I'm feeling like that is a good enough reason for people to stop buying the stuff.

I get that farmers kill elephants that eat crops. We do the same with Deer in Canada, and wolves that killed Cattle. We're no better, but it just strikes me that Elephants are going to disappear and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves. We've already, for all intents and purposes, lost the rhino and the elephant will likely be next

This is really interesting. I wonder if they can even understand (to some level) some simple, oft used phrases in some languages?


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