Elephants can determine ethnic groups by voices: study

Elephants are fascinating animals, and according to British researchers, they can also distinguish whether people are friends or foes by the way they sound.

According to the study, the largest animal walking the earth can determine a predator from an ally by distinguishing the language, age and gender of a speaker. (Via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

The researchers played voice recordings of men, women and children of two different ethnic groups to hundreds of wild elephants in Africa to see how they would react to them. (Via BBC)

The Verge reports the elephants acted more fearful and defensive toward the male voices of the Maasai people — an African ethnic group that hunts wild elephants. But they did not act the same way toward women, children and anyone from the nonhunting Kamba group.

That's because Maasai men are the hunters of their group, so the elephants sense women and children pose no threats to them. 

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But Discovery reports although the elephants reacted cautiously, they did not outright run away because they were able to understand the Maasai men talking meant they were likely not hunting and therefore not a direct threat.

But it doesn't stop there. The researchers then digitally altered the voices of the recordings to make the pitches sound like the opposite gender. The elephants weren't fooled — they still sensed the actual genders of the voices regardless of the way they sounded to the human ear.

Regarding the phenomenon, one of the study's lead researchers tells BBC, "That suggests they're using completely different cues in order to attribute gender."

Whatever those cues, they could provide a lot of insight on how to protect wild elephants. According to The World Wildlife Fund, African elephants are currently classified as vulnerable to extinction because of illegal poaching practices.

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