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 Kenya. 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.
"Basically they have developed this very rich knowledge of the humans that they share their habitat with," said study author Karen McComb, a professor of animal behavior and cognition at the University of Sussex in England.
The study was released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
McComb and colleagues went to Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where 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 2-to-1 ratio, 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.
The elephants also could distinguish between voice patterns of men, women and young boys, the study found.