A new study reveals elephants to have created a warning sound to specifically alert others of nearby humans. Poaching rates have spiked in recent years as humans put growing pressure on African elephants. Humans have created a strong fear in wild elephants, and this method of alert helps prove they are simply too intelligent to be treated as common prey.
Researchers at Oxford University studied elephant sounds through audio experimentation in herds found in Kenya. When sounds of human voices were heard from local tribes, elephants became vigilant and retreated, while producing a call that is very distinct. This particular low rumbling in their throats is claimed to be specific to human predators.
Elephants have apparently spread this knowledge to others in their family across the region. Researchers in the field played back the call from a recording, and the elephants showed a similar reaction, shedding evidence that this rumbling call is recognized at least as a warning signal.
The reason this specific call is significant to researchers is that the form of communication is not simply an alert, but also a method of informing others to what kind of danger is present. Elephants emit a low rumbling similar to the one discovered recently when a swarm of bees were seen attacking a member of the herd, but researchers say this is actually an entirely different type of call.
Lucy King, with the African elephant research group, says their results show that African elephants alarm calls differentiate between two types of threats in this study, and reflect the level of urgency in these threats. The difference in the two calls reported is similar to a vowel change in human language. A vowel change in English, for example, can change the entire meaning of a word. Elephants decipher these calls much like humans decipher vowels and consonants, forming a knowledge base of communication.
Writer and editor, Stephen Messenger, found that tens of thousands of elephants are killed annually throughout Africa, yielding a rate of one death for every 15 minutes. No more evidence should be needed to prove to hunters, and the world, that elephants are too intelligent a creature to be some other mammal’s prey.
In the study by Joseph Soltis, Lucy King, and others, a tribe of Samburu pastoralists of Northern Kenya were studied for their common interactions with the African elephants. The humans and wildlife compete over resources such as water-holes, and so there can be great conflict in the area, which is assumed the reason for the distinct call. Specifically, when adult male Samburu voices were heard, African elephants produced an alarm in response to those specific tribesmen. Elephants took off in flight, while vocalizing the threat. This is probably because the men in the tribe are recognized by the elephants as their predators, or hunters.
The researchers say that mammals use vocalization to refer to many external objects in their environment–a phenomenon referred to as referential communication. These vocal responses vary acoustically depending on the level of threat.
Vervet monkeys respond to leopards (a predator) by emitting alarming calls while fleeing to trees. They are seen making alarm calls for eagles by looking up, and for snakes by making their alarm calls while looking down. Meerkats respond to aerial threats by freezing, scanning for cover, and then fleeing while making an alarm call.
The researchers do not believe all mammalian alarm calls are predator-specific. For example, they claim the yellow-bellied marmot emits an alarm call that is universally the same for any predatorial threat.
Time writer, Veronique Greenwood, describes a study in which the universal human motion of pointing is also used in African elephants. This is naturally recognized to be an extremely complex cognitive skill, which many people assumed a strictly primate-like characteristic.
Greenwood explains that the elephant could have learned this trait from being around humans, nevertheless, it still shows, even if learned, that elephants have a complex brain. Humans regard other humans to be too intelligent to be treated as prey, so what proof is there that elephants are any less important? These creatures are self-aware enough to learn and repeat behaviors, indicating they are more than just a poacher’s game. African elephants have continued to show impressive traits that researchers will keep a keen watch on for many more lessons on mankind’s humility.
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Opinion By Lindsey Alexander
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