Elephants Can Tell the Difference Between Human Languages

You’ve been told that an elephant never forgets. That memory can save their lives, particularly when it comes to knowing which humans are a threat and which aren’t. University of Sussex professor of animal behavior Karen McComb tells us about an experiment that shows us once again how intelligent elephants are.

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 different 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.”

There were also recordings of women’s and young boy’s voices saying the same thing in the two languages, which did not cause a reaction in the elephants, possibly because women and children don’t normally kill elephants. Read more about the experiment at Time. Read more about elephant research at Dr. Shannon’s website. -via Marilyn Terrell

(Image credit: Dr. Graeme Shannon)

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