Elephants Know A Scary Amount Of Information About You

“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant, / The only harmless great thing.” —John Donne, The Progress of the Soul

In A Nutshell

Elephants are pretty insightful animals. In 2009, researchers discovered these long-trunked critters can distinguish between various people groups thanks to their keen sense of smell. And earlier this month, scientists realized elephants can actually identify human age, gender, and ethnicity simply by listening to our conversations.

The Whole Bushel

Every so often, new research comes along that confirms what everyone already knows—that elephants are awesome. These brainy pachyderms are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. They can understand human gestures, mimic human speech, and, assuming Walt Disney is right, can even fly. However, two new studies have recently revealed that elephants are even smarter than we imagined.

In 2009, scientists from the University of St. Andrews ran a quirky experiment involving human clothing. Researchers placed three garments near African elephant families and watched how the creatures reacted. When the animals smelled clean, odor-free shirts, they went about their business and were totally relaxed. When the elephants smelled clothing belonging to Kamba farmers, they perked up a bit, suspecting humans were nearby. However, every single time the elephants smelled Maasai robes, they took off in terror, bolting for the elephant grass.

The reason for their fear is pretty simple. The Kamba people tend to avoid serious conflict with elephants, but it’s a different story with the Maasai. These guys are ranchers, and occasionally, elephants accidentally kill their cattle. They’re also constantly battling over watering holes and grazing land. From time to time, the Maasai arm themselves with spears and make a dent in the local elephant population. Thanks to government compensation for lost livestock, these killings are starting to drop, but elephants still associate the Maasai with death whenever they smell their distinct odor or spot their trademark red robes.

However, earlier this month, scientists from the University of Sussex made an even crazier discovery. Evidently, elephants can identify the Kaamba and the Maasai based on language alone. Using a speaker, researchers played recordings of various tribesmen saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.” Just like the clothing test, elephants weren’t too worried when they heard Kaamba voices, but they went into panic mode when they heard clips of the Maasai language.

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The scientists were also shocked to find elephants could differentiate between men, women, and children. When zoologists played recordings of Maasai boys and women, the elephants remained calm. That’s probably because females and children aren’t the hunters. But when they heard sound bites of Maasai men, the elephants formed protective circles and readied themselves for an attack. They actually knew which humans were more likely to lob spears their way.

Wondering if they could maybe fool the elephants, scientists adjusted the pitch of the voices, causing the men and women to sound alike . . . well, to human ears anyway. As for the elephants, they weren’t fooled for a minute. Even though the voices were lighter, the animals could still tell the difference between men and women. How? Scientists are still working on that. What they do know is elephants are extremely social creatures that live long lives and share their knowledge with their kiddos. And if an old-timer has had a bad brush with a Maasai hunter, she’ll warn the whippersnappers to stay away from those red-garbed ranchers. The fear is passed on from generation to generation because, after all, elephants never forget.

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Elephants smell the difference between human ethnic groups
National Geographic: Elephants Hear Age, Gender, Ethnicity in Human Voices
LA Times: Elephants distinguish human voices by sex, age, ethnicity, study says

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