A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Surprise: Elephants Are Really Intelligent (Really!)


Why are we humans always surprised to learn that other animals (aka “animals”) are “also” intelligent?

Perhaps it’s because we’re not so bright ourselves when it comes to relating to nonhuman animals!

Whatever the reason, two new studies demonstrating the language skills of elephants have been widely reported in the last few weeks. One of them shows that elephants can distinguish the voices and dialects of different African tribes, whether the voices are male or female, and if they’re young or old.

Elephants can distinguish the voices and dialects of different African tribes, whether the voices are male or female, and if they’re young or old.Why is this important to them? Because in the region of Africa where the studies were done, the male adults of the Maasai tribe are waging war on the elephants in an attempt to keep the watering holes for themselves and their cattle. The elephants know they need to warn each other and get out of way if they hear adult male Maasai. But they also know that they don’t need to be concerned about Maasai women or children, or indeed adult males of other tribes.

Karen McComb, of the University of Sussex, explains:

“Recognizing predators and judging the level of threat they pose is a crucial skill for many wild animals. Human predators present a particularly interesting challenge, as different groups of humans can represent dramatically different levels of danger to animals living around them.”

In this study, the scientists observed that the matriarch of the elephant tribe alerts the family with a low rumble when she hears the voice and dialect that spells danger, and the whole family quietly moves into a defensive formation and retreats from the scene.

There are many fascinating aspects to the study, and my colleague Russell Tenofsky has written more about them here at the Nonhuman Rights Project.

The other study gives new insight into how elephants talk to each other. In this one, as Russell again reports, scientists have been studying the “language” of elephants.

Lucy_King___Joseph_Soltis_filming_with_car“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,” explains Dr. Lucy King of Save the Elephants and Oxford University.

Dr. King and her colleagues played recorded voices of adult males from Kenya’s Samburu tribesmen to African elephants in the wild. She says that “the listening elephants exhibited vigilance behavior, flight behavior, and produced vocalizations (rumbles, roars and trumpets).”

And when the team studied the ultra-low sound frequencies elephants use to communicate – frequencies that are undetectable by humans – they discovered that the language of elephants is far more complex than was previously thought.

For example, it was already known that elephants have a particular rumble warning each other to watch out for bees. But it turns out that the warning for humans is just a very small variation on the bee rumble. As Dr. King explains:

“[The analysis] 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 team notes that when elephants hear the bee alarm rumble, they shake their heads and flap their ears, but they don’t do that when they hear the human alarm rumble.

“[It’s possible] 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.”

Commenting on these studies in Scientific American, Ferris Jabr argues that this mounting evidence proves that elephants should not be kept captive in zoos.

Few zoos can adequately re-create the complex social life of wild elephants. Female elephants in captivity are often strangers acquired from here and there. Any friendships that do form can dissolve in an instant when a zoo decides to relocate an animal. “Sometimes people treat these creatures like furniture,” says Cynthia Moss of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

… Zoos mix males and females in ways that would never occur in the wild and try to offload adult males if they become too cantankerous or lustful.

Now that the evidence of the elephant’s intellect and emotional life is no longer mostly anecdotal the zoological community faces even more pressure to answer a daunting question: Why keep elephants in captivity at all?

There are about 300 elephants in zoos in the United States, and studies show that about 75 percent of them are overweight or obese; up to 40 percent have foot or joint problems; and 80 percent display behavioral tics such as pacing and continual head bobbing or swaying.

Ed Stewart, President of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, tells Jabr, “Elephants should not be in captivity – period … With all of that brainpower – to be as limited as they are in captivity – it’s a wonder they cope at all. In 20 years I hope we will look back and think, ‘Can you believe we ever kept those animals in cages?'”

Jabr concludes:

We now have solid evidence that elephants are some of the most intelligent, social and empathic animals around – so how can we justify keeping them in captivity?

To which one can only respond that since every kind of animal is born to live her own life with others of her kind in their own environment, and all communicating with each other in their own sophisticated ways, how can we justify keeping any of them in captivity for any reason at all?