Elephants have a well-developed type of verbal communication. This health blog takes a deeper look at elephant sounds, language and the emotional life of elephants to better understand their intelligence and behavior patterns.
Humans, in their arrogance, believe that they are the only intelligent species. For example, most people believe that talking, feeling, thinking elephants exist only in Disney movies and Babar books. Yes, we’ve seen elephants paint and sell artwork. In fact, elephant art has become quite pricey in some circles. But that’s just a novelty, not real intelligence, right? In fact, that wall between animals and humans is steadily eroding. Not long ago, best-selling books came out describing the emotional life of elephants, befuddling those who thought of elephants as big, dumb beasts. And more recently, research uncovered the fact that elephants have a well-developed type of verbal communication. They use specific noises to signal the birth of a baby elephant and also to warn of the presence of humans.
Now it seems that scientists have taken a step towards decoding that elephant language, adding another “word” to the pachyderm’s vocabulary. The word signals danger — and not from humans or from Timothy Q. Mouse, as in Dumbo — but from bees. As it turns out, bees sting elephants between the eyes and inside the trunk, causing serious pain. Apparently, the animals utter a specific, distinctive sound when they encounter bees, perhaps as a way of warning others in the herd.
Research director Dr. Lucy King of the University of Oxford in England says, “In our experiments, we played the sound of angry bees to elephant families and studied their reaction. Importantly we discovered elephants not only flee from the buzzing sound but make a unique ‘rumbling’ call as well as shaking their heads.” The researchers assume the head shaking plus throwing dust around allows the elephants to chase away the bees.
The researchers, from Oxford University, Save the Elephants, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, first played “bee sounds” as well as “white noise” sounds to 10 elephant families. “In 14 out of 15 bee trials (93 percent), families had moved away, compared to six of 13 white noise control trials (46 percent),” said an article in PloS One.
The researchers then recorded the noise the elephants made after hearing the bee sounds. When they played the sounds back to the elephants, even though no bees were in the area and no bee buzzing sound was heard, the elephants fled in response to hearing their own bee warning sounds. “The results were dramatic,” says Dr. King. “Six out of 10 elephant families fled from the loudspeaker when we played the â€˜bee rumble’ compared to just two when we played a control rumble… Moreover, we also found that the elephants moved away much further when they heard the ‘bee’ alarm call than the other rumbles.” The researchers also slightly altered just one component of the “bee rumble” and played that back to the herds, and most of the elephants did not respond to that sound.
When the results came in, the researchers concluded that elephant language may be more complex than originally thought. One of the researchers, Dr. Joseph Soltis of Disney’s Animal Kingdom said, “The calls give tantalizing clues that elephants may produce different sounds in the same way that humans produce different vowels, by altering the position of their tongues and lips. It’s even possible that, rather like with human language, this enables them to give superficially similar-sounding calls very different meanings.”
Plus, the sounds travel over far distances (as is the wont of low frequency sound): some experts say up to 10 km. Evidence further suggests that elephants recognize individual voices of herd members, and will react differently if a rumble comes from a family member or friend versus from an unknown elephant. Dr. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell of Stanford University found that herd members move closer to sounds coming from elephants they know, and ignore sounds from “strangers.” Junior members of the herd tend to raise their voices to higher pitches in order to get attention or to respond to dominant members of the group. Sound like any children you know?
For those who would dismiss the evidence of elephant speech as mere bestial grunting, studies show that elephants have brains larger and more complex than any other land mammal, including humans. Their brains develop in a pattern similar to that of humans, with an enormous amount of brain growth apparent in the years between birth and adulthood. The elephant hippocampus, which is the brain area associated with memory and emotion, takes up a larger proportion than does the human hippocampus, and elephants in fact clearly do show emotion and may be capable of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Studies show that elephants have elaborate “grieving” rituals.” They mimic what they see and hear, use tools, exhibit profound loyalty, protect loved ones and even strangers, recognize themselves in mirrors, solve complex problems, and as previously stated, create impressive artwork. They chew particular plants in order to induce labor, just as their human neighbors in Kenya do. (Now if they could just write my blogs and newsletters!)
In light of all these studies regarding elephant smarts, one wonders about the intelligence of humans who poach them and contribute to their becoming an endangered species. No wonder Aristotle once called elephants, “The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind,” and in that utterance, he no doubt included his fellow citizens.