Elephants tell human friend from foe by voice

From ABC News in Science, 10 March 2014:

Elephants are able to distinguish between friendly humans and those more likely to pose a threat, based solely on vocal cues, new research shows.

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examines the extent to which African elephants use human voice cues to determine not only ethnicity, but also finer-scaled differences in gender and age.

The team of researchers from the UK and Kenya studied 47 different elephant family groups living in the Amboseli National Park.

Humans pose the most significant threat, other than lions, to elephants living in this area, but different ethnic groups pose different levels of danger.

“Maasai pastoralists periodically come into contact with elephants over access to water and grazing for their cattle, and this sometimes results in elephants being speared, particularly in retaliation when Maasai lives have been lost,” write the authors.

“In contrast, Kamba men, with more agricultural lifestyles, do not typically pose a significant threat to elephants within the National Park, and where conflict occurs outside over crop raiding, this largely involves male rather than female elephants.”

Past research has shown that elephants showed a greater fear reaction to garments worn by Maasai men, and their typically red-coloured fabric, than those worn by the Kamba.

In this study, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the elephants could reliably discriminate between ethnic and age groups based on their response to voice recordings from Maasai and Kamba men, women and boys.

When the elephants heard the playback of Maasai adult males, they behaved much more defensively, with more investigative smelling, bunching and retreating, than when they heard Kamba voices.

They also reacted more strongly to adult males than to adult females or to young male voices. Read more.

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