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Elephant Ears

March 17, 2014

Elephants can discriminate between human voices that pose a threat to their safety and those that do not.



An elephant’s ear for voices. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

courtesy of Graham Shannon Elephants' response to Maasai male playback

Elephants’ response to Maasai male playback. (Courtesy of Graeme Shannon)

Elephants in Kenya sometimes get speared by semi-nomadic Maasai herders. But they have little to fear from another ethnic group, the Kamba, who practice agriculture. University of Sussex behavioral ecologist Karen McComb and her colleagues think being able to distinguish between the voices of Maasai men and Kamba men would benefit the elephants.

KAREN McCOMB (University of Sussex):

Because if they constantly interrupt feeding for every sort of alarm, then they’re going to suffer, but if they ignore the really serious threats, you know, they’re going to suffer even more.


So the researchers played recordings of both Maasai men and Kamba men talking, to elephants in Amboseli National Park.


They were much more fearful and defensive when they were faced with the Maasai men in comparison with the Kamba men.


Not only that, the elephants reacted more strongly of recordings of Maasai men than to those of Maasai women or boys, who pose little threat to their safety. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Setup for playback of vocal recordings courtesy of Graeme Shannon

Setup for playback of vocal recordings. (Photo courtesy of Graeme Shannon)