Elephants Can Recognize Different Human Languages

They protect themselves from groups seen as threat
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted Mar 11, 2014 9:03 AM CDT

(Newser) – Speak the wrong language in front of an African elephant, and she may not like you much. In a study at a Kenyan national park, researchers played recordings of different languages and voices for 47 elephant family groups, comprising hundreds of animals. The recordings included the voices of Maasai men, whose cattle-herding can cause run-ins with elephants. Kamba men, on the other hand, are often farmers or national park workers and present little danger to elephants, AFP reports via Raw Story. While the languages recorded were different, the spoken phrase was the same: "Look, look over there—a group of elephants is coming."

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When the elephants heard Maasai men, they prepared to protect themselves, sniffing around and moving together. But the voices of Kamba men didn't prompt much worry. "They are making such a fine-level discrimination using human language skills," a study author tells the AP. "They're able to acquire quite detailed knowledge." The elephants also appeared to be able to distinguish between men and women: Maasai women's voices didn't set off major alarm bells, nor did Maasai boys'. The findings come as humans and elephants overlap more often in the park, leading to occasional clashes, Discover notes. Indeed, the study is "sad because it suggests that the conflict between humans and elephants is growing," says an expert. (Read more elephants stories.)

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