'Human!': Elephants have special vocal alarm when in danger from people

A team of researchers has discovered that African elephants apparently have a special call they use to warn each other of approaching humans.

Animals communicate with each other all the time, of course, but this study, done by researchers from Oxford University, the non-profit conservation organization Save the Elephants and Disney's Animal Kingdom shows some real sophistication in the communication between elephants. Previous studies have already revealed that they have a special call when angry bees are about. Researchers playing the sound back to elephants found that they would run away while shaking their heads — exactly as if they were being attacked by a swarm of bees. Although having one alarm call for danger is likely enough for any animal species, this study shows that elephants change the sound of their alarms, based on the threat.

In this case, the researchers recorded the sounds made by people in the Samburu tribe of northern Kenya and then played them near a group of elephants. The elephants immediately responded by becoming more vigilant, looking around for the source of potential danger, and then moving away from the source. While they were doing this, the sound technician was able to pick up a low rumbling sound being made by them, which was similar to the alarm the elephants used when confronted by the threat from bees.

However, although similar, upon analysis, this new sound turned out to have important differences from their bee alarm. You can listen to the sound by clicking here.

"Interestingly, the acoustic analysis done by Joseph Soltis at his Disney laboratory showed that the difference between the 'bee alarm rumble' and the 'human alarm rumble' is the same as a vowel-change in human language, which can change the meaning of words (think of 'boo' and 'bee')," said Dr. Lucy King, of Save the Elephants and Oxford University, who co-led the study with Soltis, according to a statement. "Elephants use similar vowel-like changes in their rumbles to differentiate the type of threat they experience, and so give specific warnings to other elephants who can decipher the sounds."

When the team played back the 'human alarm rumble' to the elephants, they reacted in the exact same way they had when they heard the sounds from the Samburu tribe. They didn't shake their heads back and forth, like they had done when hearing the bee alarm, which indicated that the elephants weren't just reacting to a general warning — the difference in the sound translated in a different reaction.

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This whole project is designed to look for ways to keep elephant-human conflicts to a minimum. The Elephants and Bees Project has already set up farms in northern Kenya with 'beehive fences', since the noise from the bees keeps elephants out of the crops and the farmers can harvest the honey for more income.

This new study for the project gives them even more to work with, as Dr. King said in the statement: "Learning more about how elephants react to threats such as bees and humans will help us design strategies to reduce human-elephant conflict and protect people and elephants."

(Photo courtesy CBC)

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