An elephant never forgets (a voice)

BY Justin Scuiletti  March 10, 2014 at 6:54 PM EST
Elephant in Kenya. Photo by rcrhee.

A new study suggests that elephants can differentiate between voices. Photo by rcrhee.

Elephants may be listening closer than you think. A new study released Monday from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that not only can wild elephants distinguish between different human languages, but they can also differentiate between sex and age.

In the study, researchers played recordings of different human voices to elephants in Kenya, where the animals live among humans. They played the phrase: “Look over there. A group of elephants is coming,” in two different languages — one spoken by Maasai men and the other by Kamba men.

A majority of the time, the elephants reacted more defensively to the recording of the Maasai men — who more often kill elephants in conflict over water — than the recording of Kamba men.

Scientists also played recordings of Maasai men and women, in addition to the voices of children. Voices of the women and children, who rarely attack elephants, elicited fewer reactions from the animals than the men. Even after modulating the voices of each sex to sound like the opposite, the elephants reacted more strongly to the changed voices of men

“They are making such a fine-level discrimination using human language skills,” Graeme Shannon, co-author of the study, told the AP. “They’re able to acquire quite detailed knowledge. The only way of doing this is with an exceptionally large brain.”