Know your enemy: Elephants are even cannier than zoologists previously realised

Know your enemy: Pachyderms are even cannier than zoologists previously realised
Mar 15th 2014 | From the print edition
ELEPHANTS in Africa have been dealing with people since people existed, for the first humans evolved in that part of the world 2m years ago. And they have been dealing with honeybees even longer—for those insects, which also evolved in Africa, have been around for at least 35m years. People and bees are more or less the only animals a full-grown elephant is scared of, so looking at the nuances of how they react to them is intriguing. Two papers published this week do just this. They show that elephants can recognise the languages of ethnic groups likely to be hostile to them, and of those which are not, and also that the beasts are able to warn each other about bees in a different way from the one they use to warn each other about people.The Masai, Kenyans who often make their livings as herders, have a long history of spearing elephants because elephants compete with them—or, rather, with their cattle—for water holes and grazing. However, the Masai’s neighbours, the agriculturally inclined Kamba, rarely kill elephants. And elephants can tell the difference. They recognise Masai and Kamba both by appearance and by smell. A team led by Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex, in Britain, wondered if they might be able to distinguish the groups’ languages as well.
To find out, Dr McComb and Dr Shannon recorded Masai and Kamba men as they calmly said, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.” They then played the recordings to 48 groups of elephants to see what happened. They have just published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
When elephants heard the Masai, they sniffed around for danger 70% of the time and retreated or gathered together in protective bunches 60% of the time. When they heard the Kamba they sniffed only 25% of the time and retreated or bunched a mere 40% of the time. Moreover, in the case of the Masai, at least, it was male voices that were the most frightening. When the two researchers repeated their experiment with recordings of Masai women and children, the elephants tended to ignore them.
The alarm-call study was carried out by Joseph Soltis and Anne Savage, biologists at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, in Florida, which, besides being a place of entertainment, has a research arm. They were also working in Kenya, in an area inhabited by the Samburu, who are, like the Masai, herders, and thus just about as popular with elephants, and vice versa.
Both Samburu and bees cause elephants to make deep rumbling sounds that can travel for miles, and serve to inform other elephants that trouble is around. Dr Soltis and Dr Savage found, as they describe in PLOS ONE, that these rumbles are different. Elephants rumble at 33Hz when they hear bees (the researchers used tape recordings, rather than releasing actual bee swarms) and at 39Hz when they hear Samburu. They also shake their heads when they are rumbling at bees, but not when they are rumbling at Samburu. Whether that is part of a bee-specific warning to their neighbours, or merely a pre-emptive attempt to drive away the annoying insects, no one knows.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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