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How Elephants Say “Human!”

By Russell Tenofsky

Scientists have known for some time that elephants have calls and rumbles that denote specific “words” and “phrases.” The well-documented “let’s go” rumble is among the many aspects of elephant language that scientists already understand. But new research, published in Plos One, confirms that elephants have a call to alert each other to “humans;” and, even more exciting, bioacoustics analysis shows they apparently possess an “alphabet.”

Photo of a herd of elephants walking through a dry environment.

“Elephants appear to be able to manipulate their vocal tract (mouth, tongue, trunk and so on) to shape the sounds of their rumbles to make different alarm calls,” said Dr. Lucy King of Save the Elephants and Oxford University.

A team of researchers, led by Dr. King, played recorded voices of adult males from Kenya’s Samburu tribesmen to African elephants in the wild. The “listening elephants exhibited vigilance behavior, flight behavior, and produced vocalizations (rumbles, roars, and trumpets).”

Photo of human researches Lucy King and Joseph Soltis filming and recording audio of elephants.Back in the lab, Dr. Joseph Soltis, a bioacoustics expert from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, studied the ultra-low sound frequencies elephants use to communicate – frequencies that are undetectable to humans – and discovered that the language of elephants is far more complex than once thought. According to the researchers, the elephants’ rumble for “humans” carries a very close bioacoustics signature to their previously documented call, “bee alarm rumble.”

As Dr. King explained it:

“Interestingly, the acoustic analysis done by Joseph Soltis at his Disney laboratory showed that 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 so give specific warnings to other elephants who can decipher the sounds.”

The scientists concede the elephants’ reactions to the recordings may all be a coincidence and merely an “emotional response” to a threat. However, this appears to be highly unlikely because elephants exhibited different behaviors after each call. For example, the elephants did not display the head shaking or ear flapping needed to keep from being stung after they made the “human” rumble, but did so after the “bee alarm” rumble.

According to Dr. King:

“We concede the possibility that these alarm calls are simply a by-product of elephants running away, that is, just an emotional response to the threat that other elephants pick up on. On the other hand, we think it is also possible that the rumble alarms are akin to words in human language, and that elephants voluntarily and purposefully make those alarm calls to warn others about specific threats.”

“Our research results here show that African elephant alarm calls can differentiate between two types of threat and reflect the level of urgency of that threat.”

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