Elephants never cease to surprise us. The elephant brain has three times as many neurons as our own (257 billion compared to our 86 billion). They are empathetic, comforting one another in times of crisis. They understand human gestures, and they suffer psychologically and socially after traumatic events.
Now, we can add another to the list—elephants can tell humans apart merely by hearing our voices.
A new study by Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon of the University of Sussex demonstrates that elephants can tell the difference between the voices of two different ethnic groups—the agriculturalist Kamba and the cattle-herding Maasai. Such a finely-tuned ear is a useful skill because the Maasai tend to clash with elephants over land and water resources.
Here’s Ed Yong, writing at Not Exactly Rocket Science:
The team recorded 20 Maasai and 15 Kamba saying “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” in their respective languages. They then played these recordings to 48 family groups of Amboseli elephants. The herds obviously couldn’t understand the meaning of the words, but they could tell the difference between the two languages. When they heard the Massai voices, they were much more likely to bunch up into defensive clusters and sniff the air with their trunks. They knew which group was more dangerous.
They also seemed to know which people within the groups pose the greatest threat: they behaved defensively when they heard Maasai men rather than women, and adults rather than boys. “I don’t find this at all surprising, since voice pitch alone enables that distinction,” says Byrne. “But the details that differ between Maasai and Kamba languages are presumably more subtle.”
Since elephants are highly social, such knowledge is probably cultural rather than innate and gets passed down through generations. Amina Khan, writing for The Los Angeles Times:
The Kamba men spoke a different language than the Maasai, so it’s likely the elephants were picking up on linguistic cues rather than some underlying, inherited differences in their voices. But the scientists aren’t sure exactly how the elephants could tell the adult male Maasai voices from the women and boys’ voices. When they remixed the men’s voices to sound more like the women’s and vice versa, the animals weren’t fooled. Figuring out that mystery will be the job of future research, Shannon said.
Another recent study also showed that when elephants warn each other of impending threats, they vocalize differently depending on who or what is approaching. Experts aren’t sure whether or not these vocalizations resemble language, or if elephants understand the concept of separate languages in human speech.