While one of ELP’s missions is to decipher the language of forest elephants, it turns out elephants are also listening and interpreting human voices. A study conducted at Amboseli National Park in Kenya shows elephants have a remarkable ability to distinguish and interpret sounds¹. Not only do they associate certain sounds with danger, they also make important distinctions between different human voices, enabling them to determine threats.
Elephants at Amboseli were tested for their reactions to recordings of the same (non-threatening) phrase, spoken in several different local languages by people of different ages and sex. The elephants responded calmly to most voices except for those of adult Maasai men, who sometimes hunt the elephants. Upon hearing the Maasai men, the elephants gathered in a protective formation around their young and raised their trunks in the air. The voices of Massai women and children, however, did not spark this defensive reaction.
Joyce Pool, who studies the social behavior and communication of African elephants, commented: “I routinely tell the Maasai I work with that the elephants are studying us more carefully than we are studying them”². The ability of Amboseli elephants to determine the intent of the voices based on gender, age, and threat-association has fascinating implications, including of course, that they are incredibly clever.
¹ McComb, Karen, Graeme Shannon, Katito N. Sayialel, and Cynthia Moss. “Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, no. 14 (2014): 5433–5438.
² Virginia Morell, “Elephants Have Learned to Understand Human,” Science, March 10, 2014. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/03/elephants-have-learned-understand-human