- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

African elephants can differentiate between human languages to detect danger, suggesting that the largest land animals on Earth are even more intelligent than previously thought, a new study revealed.

Researchers played recordings of human voices for roughly 1,500 elephants at Amboseli National Park in Kenya to see how they would respond, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Agence France-Presse reported.

Some of the voices were from local Maasai men, a cattle-herding group that sometimes kills elephants over access to water and grazing space.

Other recorded voices included Kamba men, who rarely represent a danger to the elephants, as well as female Maasai speakers and young boys.

All of the speakers recited the same phrase: “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.”

The elephants remained indifferent to all of the voices except for the adult Maasai men, to which they gathered together and began sniffing the air with their trunks, AFP reported.

“They’re using vocal information from another species — us — and they’re using that to discern threat,” said study co-author Graeme Shannon. “That takes really advanced cognitive abilities. … These are subtle differences these elephants are attending to.”

The elephants’ abilities are “pretty remarkable,” said Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at research non-profit Think Elephants International, who was not involved in the study, USA Today reported.

The study “is indicating that elephants are learning to adapt to a growing threat in their environment, and the unfortunate and disturbing part is that threat is us. … It just goes to show how intelligent these animals are that they can be this flexible,” he said.

 

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