Recent studies show that elephants may be much smarter than believed. Some researchers tested 47 different elephant families in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and found that they were able to distinguish differences in languages, and perceived threats from different humans. The researchers believe the skills were developed as a survival mechanism, as African elephants have become endangered over the years. The population of African elephants has been reduced, as many were hunted and killed for their ivory tusks.
Recordings of different human voices repeating the same phrase in different languages, were played to hundreds of elephants, and their reactions were carefully observed. The observations led the researchers to conclude that the elephants may be much smarter than believed. The researchers found that when the elephants heard the voices of Masai male,with whom they often clashed over water and territory, they gathered together and cautiously moved away, while they showed no reaction when they heard the voices of female Masai, young boys and Kemba tribesmen, with whom they normally have no conflicts.
Graeme Shannon, psychology fellow from the University of Sussex, who was involved in the study, believes that the elephants may not really understand what the words may actually mean, but that they may be able to distinguish the nuances, such as sound or inflections that are involved in different languages.
The rather sophisticated capability is not available in all animals, many of whom will simply flee, when threats from humans are perceived, but smarter animals appear to react differently and not assume a flight response, according to Keith Lindsay, who is member of the scientific committee of the Elephant Research Project in Amboseli. The reaction also suggests that elephants can think and reason that Masai are not hunting, but are talking, because the Masai would normally be quiet while hunting. The older elephants appear to be better at perceiving the threats, which bolsters the suggestion that is a learned behavior. Other species that have demonstrated the same level of intelligence when interacting with humans, include bottle-nose dolphins, great apes and crows.
Other recently completed experiments showed that elephants understand the concept of cooperation and teamwork, and they also instinctively understood what pointing meant, without having to be taught. Elephants have also demonstrated the ability to show empathy. In another study reported in the Peer Journal, Asian elephants were able to detect when another is stressed out, and one of the reactions noticed, was the use of the trunk to gently caress the elephant under stress,while emitting a comforting chirping sound.
In a separate study, the results may have raised some cause for concern that elephants now perceive humans as a threat. Specific calls were heard when humans approached. The calls were perceived as warnings that an adversary may be near, which suggests there may be a change in the relationship with people. This can be disconcerting, and suggests that more efforts should now be directed toward conservation.
Experts on animal intelligence say that the fact that the elephants are the largest land animals, and can make distinctions, along with the indications that elephants may be much smarter than believed, can make them become wary of humans, perhaps leading to unpredictable behavior.
By Dale Davidson