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Elephants Can Distinguish Human’s Age, Gender and Ethnicity through Vocal Cues

Elephant-groupA joint study by University of Sussex and Amboseli Trust for Elephants finds that elephants have variable fear reaction to different human voices and they can distinguish human’s age, gender and ethnicity. The results are published in the journal PNAS.

The cattle-herding Maasai people often encounter free-ranging elephants and sometimes they engage in violent consequences. Previous studies revealed that the scent of a garment worn by a Maasai man provoked a fear-based response in elephants, indicating that the elephants regard the Maasai as a threat.

Karen McComb, Graeme Shannon and co-workers recorded the voices of Maasaii men, women and children, as well as that of the Kamba people, all speaking the same phrase in their first language. The researchers played the recordings to wild elephant family groups in Amboseli National Park, Kenya.

The results show that compared with the agricultural, non-threatening Kamba men, elephants were more likely to engage in defensive behavior like bunching into a group during playback of the Maasai men.

Moreover, elephants were more likely to behave defensively when the researchers played the recording of Maasai men than Maasai women, even when the Maasai men’s voices were re-synthesized to match female vocal features. More interestingly, elephants acted more defensively in response to men’s recordings than those of boys. The results suggest that elephants can use vocal cues to gauge the level of threats and such ability indicates considerable cognitive flexibility and fine-grained discrimination capability.


  1. Karen McComb et al. Elephants can determine ethnicity, gender, and age from acoustic cues in human voices. (2014)PNAS.   doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321543111

Source: EurekAlert!

Image source: SodaHead