Elephants attuned to human voices
WASHINGTON — Dr. Seuss had it right: Horton really does hear a Who. Wild elephants can distinguish between human languages, and they can tell whether a voice comes from a man, woman or boy, a new study says.
That's what researchers found when they played recordings of people for elephants in Ken-ya. Scientists say this is an advanced thinking skill that other animals haven't shown. It lets elephants figure out who is a threat and who isn't.
The result shows that while humans are studying elephants, the clever animals are studying people and drawing on their famed powers of memory, said study author Karen McComb.
“Basically they have developed this very rich knowledge of the humans that they share their habitat with,” said McComb, a professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of Sussex in England.
“Memory is key. They must build up that knowledge somehow.”
The study was released on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It's close but not quite like the Dr. Seuss book, where the empathetic elephant Horton hears something that others can't hear.
McComb and colleagues went to Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where hundreds of wild elephants live among humans, sometimes coming in conflict over scarce water. The scientists used voice recordings of Maasai men, who on occasion kill elephants in confrontations over grazing for cattle, and Kamba men, who are less of a threat to the elephants. The recordings contained the same phrase in two languages: “Look over there. A group of elephants is coming.”
By about a two-to-one margin, the elephants reacted defensively — retreating and gathering in a bunch — more to the Maasai language recording because it was associated with the more threatening human tribe, said study co-author Graeme Shannon of Colorado State University.
“They are making such a fine-level discrimination using human language skills,” Shannon said. “They're able to acquire quite detailed knowledge. The only way of doing this is with an exceptionally large brain.”
They repeated the experiment with recordings of Maasai men and women. Since women almost never spear elephants, the animals reacted less to the women's voices. The same thing happened when they substituted young boys' voices.
While it shows quite a bit about elephant intelligence and adaptability, it also indicates a problem, said biologist Josh Plotnik, founder of Think Elephants International, a research and advocacy group.
“This is both fascinating in that it supports evidence we already have that these animals are behaviorally quite flexible, but also sad because it suggests that the conflict between humans and elephants is growing,” Plotnik, who was not part of the study, wrote in an email.
In yet another experiment McComb and Shannon altered female and male voices, making female voices sound male by lowering their tone and resonance, and males sound female by raising their pitches. Those kinds of changes fool most humans, but the clever elephants weren't tricked, McComb said. They still moved away from the altered male voices and not the altered female voices.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Opening statements due in Boston Marathon bombing trial
- Physicians’ organization cites shortages of doctors will grow, mostly in senior care
- Case on Obamacare tax subsidies heads to Supreme Court
- Supremacist to go on trial for capital murder in slayings of 3 at Jewish sites in Kan.
- Feds raid ‘maternity hotels’ in Ca.
- GOP admits defeat as Congress approves Homeland funding
- States ask judge not to lift stay in immigration lawsuit
- Expanded background checks pushed again on gun show, Internet purchases
- Petraeus, Justice Department reach plea deal on secret info given to mistress
- FDA orders warning on testosterone pills
- Oil spill in Washington river endangers wildlife