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Study finds elephants can distinguish between different human languages

By Joy Perrone,

Scientists researching elephants in Kenya have discovered that elephants can tell the difference between different human languages, as well as the age and gender of the speaker.

Karen McComb, a scientist with the University of Sussex in England, traveled with her team to the Aboseli National Park in Kenya, home to hundreds of elephants, reports The Associated Press. The scientists played voice recordings of Masai men and Kamba men for the elephants, both repeating the same phrase: "Look over there. A group of elephants is coming." Masai men are known to have killed elephants over grazing land for their cattle, while the Kamba men have no history of hurting the animals.

When they heard the Masai recording, the elephants acted defensively by huddling together and backing away from the sound source, because the sounds were connected to the threatening people. McComb attributes this to elephants' strong memory and big brains. “Basically they have developed this very rich knowledge of the humans that they share their habitat with,” she said.

National Geographic reports that the elephants can also tell the difference between an adult male Masai voice, and one of a boy, child, or a woman, as the elephants did not get defensive when hearing the voice of a child or a woman. "The elephants' decision-making is very precise," McComb says, "and it illustrates how they've adapted where they can to coexist with us. They'd rather run away than tangle with a human predator."

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

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