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Elephants able to distinguish human languages as well as who is speaking them

Male African bush elephant.
Male African bush elephant.

Elephants are more like us than many people realize. Not only do they feel the same emotions that we do, including morning their dead, they have the ability to distinguish between human languages, as well as who is speaking them (i.e. man, woman or boy).

In fact, researchers now have proof that while we are studying elephants, elephants are studying us.

“Basically they have developed this very rich knowledge of humans that they share their habitat with,” stated Karen McComb, a professor of animal behavior and cognition at England’s University of Sussex. “Memory is a key. They must build up that knowledge somehow.”

McComb’s study found that elephants at Amboseli National Park in Kenya were able to distinguish voice recording of Massai and Kamba tribesmen, recognizing that the Massai were far more threatening because they often kill elephants during confrontations over grazing cattle. The distinction was clear to the animals, despite the fact that the same message, “Look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” was spoken by both groups of men, each in their own native tongues.

The experiment was then repeated with recordings of voices from Massai women as well as men, and then that of boys. Since the women and young boys generally never spear elephants, the animals were far less upset by their voices. This was true even after the researchers attempted to fool the elephants by lowering the tone of the women’s voices to make them sound more male, as well as by raising the pitch of male voices to make them sound more female.

“While these kinds of tricks fool most humans, the elephants proved far more clever, and could not be duped,” noted McComb.

“They are making such a fine-level discrimination using human language skill, they are able to acquire quite detailed knowledge. The only way to do that is with an exceptionally large brain,” added McComb’s co-author Graeme Shannon of Colorado State University.

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