Many animal species, including multiple primates¹ and some birds², have been documented using specific alarm calls to warn each other about different predators. Group members often respond with escape behavior or behaviors that eliminate the threat. Some scientists believe these vocalizations are evolutionary precursors of human language and the use of words¹.
A 2014 study³ from Kenya’s Samburu & Buffalo Springs Game Reserve shows that African elephants may also use vocalizations to warn of danger. In the study’s first phase, recordings of speech and singing by members of the Samburu tribe, who sometimes have conflicts with elephants, were played to elephant family groups. The behavioral responses and alarm calls produced by the elephants were recorded and compared to those produced in response to hearing honey bee sounds, which have previously been shown to elicit alarm behavior⁴.
In response to both threats, elephants exhibited more vigilance behavior such as smelling the air and raising their heads. They also moved away from the noise’s source and covered larger distances for Samburu speech. In response to bee sounds elephants also shook their heads, presumably to keep stinging insects away from their sensitive facial area. Rumbles were the most common vocalization emitted. The rate at which they were produced increased significantly when perceived threats were present. With bee noises the call rate stayed high even after the playback recordings stopped. When analyzed, the respective vocalizations for bees and Samburu tribesman were found to be unique and greatly differed in terms of their frequency, frequency range, and points of energy concentration.
In the study’s second phase³, the recorded vocal responses to Samburu speech were played back to the elephants. Their behavioral responses were documented and compared to those for bee alarm calls. In both cases, elephants were more vigilant and moved away from the noises’ source. They moved farther away and had more pronounced vigilance behavior when the calls implied greater urgency (for example, via increased frequency). They only shook their heads in response to bee alarm calls. The elephants therefore comprehended what each vocalization was trying to convey and responded in an appropriate manner.
This research provides fascinating insights into elephant cognition and social behavior but it also has some practical conservation implications. Bee hives are frequently used as a deterrence to keep elephants away from farms where they can damage crops⁵. Understanding how they respond to and process this threat could be useful in developing better systems for repelling them and mitigating conflicts with wildlife.
¹Fedurek, Pawel, and Katie E. Slocombe. “Primate vocal communication: a useful tool for understanding human speech and language evolution?.” Human Biology 83, no. 2 (2011): 153–173.
²Suzuki, Toshitaka N. “Communication about predator type by a bird using discrete, graded and combinatorial variation in alarm calls.” Animal Behaviour 87 (2014): 59–65.
³Soltis, Joseph, Lucy E. King, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Fritz Vollrath, and Anne Savage. “African elephant alarm calls distinguish between threats from humans and bees.” PLoS One 9, no. 2 (2014): e89403
⁴King, Lucy E., Joseph Soltis, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Anne Savage, and Fritz Vollrath. “Bee threat elicits alarm call in African elephants.” PLoS One 5, no. 4 (2010): e10346.
⁵King, Lucy E., Iain Douglas‐Hamilton, and Fritz Vollrath. “Beehive fences as effective deterrents for crop‐raiding elephants: field trials in northern Kenya.” African Journal of Ecology 49, no. 4 (2011): 431–439.