Elephants Know Humans So Well They Can Tell Where We Come From

Graeme Shannon and Karen McComb with elephants in Amboseli National Park. Photo: Katito Sayialel.

Elephants can distinguish between humans by their the ethnicity, gender and age, just by hearing their voices, according to a study.

The cattle herding Maasai people often encounter free-ranging elephants, sometimes with violent consequences.

Previous studies found the scent of a garment worn by a Maasai man provoked a fear-based response in elephants, suggesting elephants view the Maasai as a threat.

Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon of the University of Sussex and colleagues recorded Maasai men, women, and boys, as well as men of the Kamba people, all speaking the same phrase in their first language.

The authors played these recordings in the presence of wild elephant family groups in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

The elephants were more likely to engage in defensive behaviour, such as bunching into a group, during playback of the Maasai men than during playback of the agricultural, non-threatening Kamba men.

They were also more likely to act defensively during playback of Maasai men than Maasai women, even when the men’s recordings were re-synthesized to match female vocal characteristics.

The elephants also acted more defensively in response to men’s voices than those of boys.

The research is published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

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