Dr. Seuss had it right: Horton really does hear a Who.
Wild elephants can distinguish between human languages, and they can tell whether a voice comes from a man, a woman or a boy.
That’s what researchers found when they played recordings of people for elephants in Kenya. Scientists say this is an advanced thinking skill that other animals haven’t shown. It lets elephants figure out who is a threat.
The result reveals that the clever animals study people and draw on their famed powers of memory, said study author Karen McComb.
“Basically they have developed this very rich knowledge of the humans that they share their habitat with,” said McComb, a professor at the University of Sussex in England.
The study was released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The findings are close to but not quite like the situation in the Dr. Seuss book, where the elephant Horton hears something that others can’t hear.
McComb and colleagues went to Amboseli National Park in Kenya, where hundreds of wild elephants live among humans, sometimes coming in conflict over the limited supply of water. The scientists used voice recordings of Masai men, who on occasion kill elephants in confrontations over grazing for cattle, and Kamba men, who are less of a threat to the elephants. The recordings contained the same phrase in two different languages: “Look over there. A group of elephants is coming.”
By about a 2-to-1 margin, the elephants reacted more defensively — retreating and gathering in a bunch — to the Masai-language recording, said study co-author Graeme Shannon of Colorado State University, because it was associated with the more-threatening human tribe.
“They’re able to acquire quite detailed knowledge,” Shannon said. “The only way of doing this is with an exceptionally large brain.”
The researchers repeated the experiment with recordings of Masai men and women. Since women almost never spear elephants, the animals reacted less to the women’s voices. The same thing happened when they substituted young boys’ voices.