Our New Paper on African Elephant Alarm Calls

African elephants are capable of making very specific alarm calls for different threats in their environment, new research shows. When confronted with the threat of honeybees or humans, the elephants shape their vocalizations in unique ways for each threat, and listening elephants can perceive the differences and react appropriately.

Researchers from Save the Elephants and Oxford University (Lucy E. King, Fritz Vollrath, and Iain Douglas-Hamilton) and from Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Joseph Soltis, Anne Savage) have been conducting research on African elephants in Northern Kenya. To flesh out the alarm call system of these elephants, the researchers conducted a series of audio playback experiments. When elephants hear the sounds of honeybees, they show some vigilance behavior, shake their heads (to knock away bees), and run away. They also make a distinctive “rumble” vocalization that warns other elephants. When other elephants hear this rumble, they also shake their heads and run away.

To learn more about this discovery:

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0010346

Now the same researchers have found that elephants have a second alarm call, one for a human threat. When elephants heard the voices of the Samburu, a local pastoralist tribe, they showed vigilance behaviors and ran away, just as they did for bees, but there was no headshaking behavior. They also made a distinctive rumble vocalization that was quite different from the bee alarm call. When elephants heard this rumble, they ran away and showed very sustained vigilance behavior (perhaps looking for the potentially lethal human threat) and ran away (but again, no headshaking).

To learn more about this discovery published this week in PLoS One:

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0089403

Interestingly, the difference between the “bee alarm rumble” and the “human alarm rumble” is the same as a vowel-change in human language, which can change the meaning of words (think of “boo” and “bee”). Elephants use similar vowel-like changes in their rumbles to differentiate the type of threat they experience, and thereby give specific warnings to other elephants who can decipher the sounds.

This research on how elephants react to and communicate about honeybees and humans is being used to reduce human-elephant conflict in Kenya. Armed with the knowledge that elephants are afraid of bees, Dr. King and Save the Elephants have built scores of “beehive fences” around local farms that protect the fields from crop-raiding elephants. In this way, local people can protect their families and livelihoods without direct conflict with elephants, and they can harvest the honey too. Learning more about how elephants react to threats such as bees and humans will help us design strategies to reduce human-elephant conflict and protect people and elephants.

To learn more about the Elephants and Bees project visit: http://elephantsandbees.com/

View our new paper on our Publications page.

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