Many animals have the ability to recognize when there's a predator around, and respond accordingly. But new research suggests that elephants possess a particularly subtle form of threat recognition: they can detect the language spoken by the humans around them.
The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took place in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, home to over 1,000 free-ranging African elephants. Those elephants come into regular contact with two different groups of people: the Maasai and the Kamba. The Kamba people are rarely much of a threat to them, whereas the Maasai occasionally spear them over competition for water and grazing land for their cattle, or to avenge group members killed by elephants.
The two groups, then, pose different levels of threat. And they speak very different languages.
To test whether the elephants could distinguish between the two, the researchers played recordings to 47 different elephant families of the phrase "Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming."
When they heard a Maasai man utter the phrase, the reaction was swift: the mammals would bunch up in a defensive formation or beat a silent retreat. When they heard a Kamba man's voice, however, they were about half as likely to strike a defensive pose.
"The human language is rich in acoustic cues," Colorado State University's Dr. Graeme Shannon, one of the co-authors, said in a release. "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 researchers also played recordings of Maasai women and young boys, who are very unlikely to spear them. Sure enough, they were much less likely to retreat.
The study adds to the ever-growing body of knowledge on elephant cognition and threat recognition. Previous research has found that elephants also react differently when presented with the scents and clothing of different ethnic groups.
"Unfortunately, there are going to be things they cannot adapt to, things such as humans' ability to come after them with automatic weapons or mass poisonings," University of Sussex behavioral ecologist Karen McComb, the lead reseracher, told National Geographic. "And in those situations, we have to protect them—or we will lose them, ultimately."
A recent book, Jumbo: the Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation, tells the story of one of the most famous elephants of all time. Author John Sutherland recently spoke with the Toronto Star about the difficult life of the star elephant.