The Kenya Forum | Elephant can recognise different human dialects - The Kenya Forum

April 11, 2014


That elephant are extraordinarily intelligent has long been known. We now also know they recognise different human dialects.

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Elephant can recognise different human dialects

Elephant can recognise different human dialects

Did you know that elephants are very afraid of people and bees and that the Jumbos have distinct ways of warning each other about the two species?

An alarm-call study that was carried out by researchers from Oxford University, Save the Elephants, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom has showed that bees make elephants shake their heads and produce rumbling sounds that can travel for miles and warn others of the impeding danger.

Although Jumbos have a thick skin, bees can inflict painful stings around their eyes and trunks and much worse a swarm of bees could even kill a thin-skinned calf. Human beings on the other end poach the animals for ivory.

According to the new research recently reported in PLOS ONE, the team of researchers led by Dr Lucy King of Save the Elephants and Oxford University and Dr Joseph Soltis, a bioacoustics expert from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the rumbles produced by the Jumbos have been linked to vowels in the human language.

‘Elephants appear to be able to manipulate their vocal tract (mouth, tongue, trunk and so on) to shape the sounds of their rumbles to make different alarm calls,’ said Dr Lucy

Even more fascinating is the discovery that elephants are able to recognize the dialects of different ethnic groups which are likely to be hostile to them and they can also distinguish the age and gender of the voices.


For instance, according to a similar research by a team led by Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex, in Britain, recently reported in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, when recordings of Maasai and Kamba men were played to a group of elephants, the Jumbos reacted differently. When elephants heard the Maasai, they sniffed around for danger 70% of the time and retreated or gathered together in protective bunches 60% of the time.

When they heard the Kamba (who are less hostile to them) they sniffed only 25% of the time and retreated or bunched a mere 40% of the time. Interestingly, in the case involving the Maasai, the Jumbos were more frightened by the sound of male voices since when the same experiment was repeated with recordings of Maasai women and children, the elephants simply ignored them.

“Recognizing 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.” said Karen McComb.

The collaborative research that has established that indeed elephants are very afraid of bees is being used to reduce human-elephant conflict in Kenya. The Save the Elephants organization is reported to making use of ‘beehive fences’ around local farms in order to lower the cases of hostility from farmers who kill the Jumbos for invading their farms.


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