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Elephants tell human friends from foes, study finds

Oct. 18, 2007
Courtesy Current Biology
and World Science staff

Ele­phants are re­markably per­cep­tive in tell­ing apart hu­man eth­nic groups that vary in the de­gree of dan­ger they’re likely to pose, a study has found.

Ele­phants in Ken­ya re­acted more fearfully to the scent of gar­ments pre­vi­ously worn by Maa­sai war­riors than those worn by Kam­ba men, the re­search­ers re­ported. Maa­sai war­riors, they ex­plained, are known to dem­on­strate their viril­ity by spear­ing ele­phants, while Kam­ba agri­cul­tur­al­ists pose lit­tle threat. 

Courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service


The ele­phants, scientists found, al­so re­spond ag­gres­sively to red cloth­ing, tra­di­tion­ally worn by young Maa­sai men. The find­ings are to be pub­lished on­line Oct. 18 by the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

This seems to be the first ex­pe­ri­men­tal de­m­on­stra­t­ion “that any an­i­mal can cat­e­go­rize a sin­gle spe­cies of po­ten­tial pred­a­tor in­to sub­classes based on such sub­tle cues,” said co-au­thor Lu­cy Bates of the Un­iver­s­ity of St. An­drews in Scot­land.

The re­search­ers, with the long-running Am­boseli El­e­phant Re­search Proj­ect, showed ele­phants clean, red cloth­ing and red cloth­ing worn for five days by ei­ther a Maa­sai or a Kamba ma­n. Maa­sai-scented cloth­ing prompted the an­i­mals to trav­el sig­nif­i­cantly faster in the first min­ute af­ter they be­gan to move, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors found. The ele­phants al­so trav­eled far­ther from the cloth smell­ing of the Maa­sai in the first five min­utes, and took long­er to re­lax.

The sci­en­tists then tested wheth­er ele­phants could use gar­ment col­or alone to clas­si­fy peo­ple. The ele­phants re­acted more ag­gres­sively to red than to white cloth, they found, adding that to ele­phants, red ac­tu­ally looks drab.

Ele­phants’ ten­den­cy to flee at the mere whiff of a per­son may have oth­er im­plica­t­ions, said the un­ivers­ity’s Rich­ard Byrne, al­so a co-author. “While ele­phants can un­doubtedly be dan­gerous when they come in­to con­flict with hu­ma­ns, our da­ta shows that, giv­en the op­por­tun­ity, they would far rath­er run away,” he re­marked. “We see this ex­pe­ri­ment as just a start to in­ves­ti­gat­ing pre­cisely how ele­phants ‘see the world,’ but it may be that their abil­i­ties will turn out to equal or ex­ceed those of our clos­er rel­a­tives, the mon­keys and apes.”


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Elephants are remarkably perceptive in distinguishing human ethnic groups that vary in the degree of danger they’re likely to pose, a study has found. Elephants in Kenya reacted with greater fear to the scent of garments previously worn by Maasai warriors than those worn by Kamba men, the researchers reported. Maasai warriors are known to demonstrate their virility by spearing elephants, while Kamba agriculturalists pose little threat, they explained. The elephants, they found, also respond aggressively to red clothing, traditionally worn by young Maasai men. The findings are to be published online on Oct. 18th by the research journal Current Biology. This seems to be the first experimental demonstration “that any animal can categorize a single species of potential predator into subclasses based on such subtle cues,” said co-author Lucy Bates of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Researchers with the long-running Amboseli Elephant Research Project first showed elephants clean, red clothing and red clothing worn for five days by either a Maasai or a Kamba man. Maasai-scented clothing prompted the animals to travel significantly faster in the first minute after they began to move, the investigators found. The elephants also traveled farther from the cloth smelling of the Maasai in the first five minutes, and took longer to relax. The scientists then tested whether elephants could use garment color alone to classify people. The elephants reacted more aggressively to red than to white cloth, they found, adding that to elephants, red actually looks drab. Elephants’ tendency to flee at the mere whiff of a person may have other implications, said the university’s Richard Byrne, also a co-author. “While elephants can undoubtedly be dangerous when they come into conflict with humans, our data shows that, given the opportunity, they would far rather run away… we see this experiment as just a start to investigating precisely how elephants ‘see the world,’ but it may be that their abilities will turn out to equal or exceed those of our closer relatives, the monkeys and apes.”