Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hearing voices: elephants can distinguish friends and foes

With experience, elephants learn that some humans are dangerous, while others are harmless.

Cool Elephant Fact 1:  When faced with a leopard call, elephants will not bother moving or changing their activity. When faced with a lion call, they freeze in place, perk up their ears to listen, and move off silently to avoid trouble.

Cool Elephant Fact 2:  They do the same with different groups of people.

One key to survival and biological fitness is knowing your enemies -- fleeing costs energy, so animals that know when to run and when to keep feeding will get to feed more than those that are perpetually nervous or interrupted while feeding.

In southern Kenya, around Amboseli National Park, Maasai people herd cattle and traditionally wear bright red cloaks. They also have a history of killing elephants to prove their strength or to compete for water or grazing space.

Mount Kilimanjaro rising up in the mist, taken from within Amboseli National Park in Kenya

Neighboring Kamba people grow crops, speak Kikamba langauge, wear light-colored clothing, and tend not to bother elephants.

We can tell them apart, and apparently so can elephants, by sight, smell, and sound. We are one of the few threats to elephants, though they seem to sense the relative risk of harm from different groups of people -- not all humans are a threat.

Researchers in Kenya found that elephants reacted aggressively to seeing unworn red garments (the color used in Maasai clothing) but not to seeing unworn white ones.

Maasai man with a brightly colored shuka in the eastern Serengeti, Tanzania. Photo: Steve Pastor-Wikipedia

The elephants also fled from red garments worn for 5 days by Maasai but not from ones worn by Kamba; in other words, they know that threatening Maasai smell different from Kamba people and react accordingly, as smelling a Maasai warrior usually means he is nearby.

Hearing is believing

And, perhaps more impressively, they can distinguish language. These are animals with amazing hearing and the ability to produce and understand a range of calls amongst themselves. Elephants use this ability to tell the difference in ethnicity, sex, and age of humans through cues in people's voices.

Kenyan elephants react differently to playbacks of the Ma language spoken by the Maasai and other languages, including Kikamba, spoken by the Kamba people.

Researchers conducted 142 such playbacks with 47 Amboseli elephant families, each time playing a different human voice through a concealed speaker placed 50 meters (164 feet) from the animals. Elephants also bunched up defensively far more when hearing a Maasai man's voice than a woman or a boy's voice, as it is normally men that will harm an elephant.

Here's a National Geographic video of a herd's behavior upon hearing the Maasai man say "Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming:"

That is a silent and rapid retreat, listening as they go.

Go Old Ladies!

An experience counts here too: herds led by older matriarchs (>42 years old) didn't retreat upon hearing voices of Maasai boys, whereas those led by younger females moved away (unnecessarily) 40% of the time.

The presence of older females, who use their years of experience to keep their families safe and productive, is thus critical to the success of elephant herds.

So elephants can tell the difference among humans that have historically posed a risk to them (Maasai men) from those that don't (women, kids, Kamba people), and they can do this seeing, smelling and listening -- it's no wonder they've survived as long as they have alongside people.  Nevertheless, even these amazing senses can't outwit armed poachers or the clearing of their habitat for crops and villages, so there is still a lot we humans need to do to support them.


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