Elephants, as most people already know, are one of the smartest animals on the planet.
However, the giant mammals continue to surprise us, as recent research reveals that elephant intelligence may even be more complex than we previously thought.
According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science,elephants can distinguish people’s age, sex and even ethnicity just by listening to their voices.
Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist and one of the main authors of the study, conducted with a team of scientists a two-year long experiment in Kenya to determine whether elephants can pick up on auditory cues to distinguish the attributes of a speaker. To do this, they strategically placed camouflaged speakers on areas where elephants usually wander.
150 meters from the speakers were Shannon and the team in a Land Rover, where they control the sound that comes out of the speakers.
When the elephants are already grazing the area, the scientists would make the speaker play a pre-recorded sound of the voices of members of the Maasai people, a group most commonly in contact with the elephants in the area. The voices were of Maasai men, women and boys shouting “Look, look over there: a group of elephants is coming”.
The voices of the Kamba people were also recorded and played during the experiment. Most Kamba people are farmers and usually have lesser contact with elephants than the Maasai.
While the speakers were playing, the scientists videotaped the responses of the elephants so they can analyze their reactions later.
When the voices of the Maasai men were played, the elephants responded with fear and moved away from the source of the sound. Maasai men, who are grazers of cattles, are known to attack elephants when their cattle are provoked.
They didn’t show fear when the voices of the Maasai women and boys ere played. Scientists believe that their neutral response to the voices was because women and boys from the Maasai group don’t usually attack elephants, unlike the men of the same group.
The elephants also didn’t respond fearfully to the voices of the Kamba people.
Because the Kamba and the Maasai speak different languages, it is possible, according to the scientists, that the elephants are merely hearing differences in the linguistic structure of the recorded voices. However, it is still unclear why the elephants had a different reaction to the Maasai men than the younger boys and women from the same group.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the elephant scientists encountered problems during the 24-month study. A hilarious one was when Shannon accidentally played his iPod on the speakers, resulting to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” being blared across the African landscape. Fortunately, the elephants were unfazed by the 80s classic.
More and more studies highlight the mysterious mind of elephants. A recent Inquisitr article revealed that elephants can also understand the gesture of pointing.
Although scientists aren’t really sure how these gray giants can understand these complex cues, we can safely concluded that elephants are highly intelligent and truly amazing creatures.
[Image from Arjo Meintjes via Flickr]