Elephants Have Learned to ‘Understand Human’

Whether we realize it, African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are listening to us. The pachyderms can tell certain human languages apart and even determine our gender, relative age, and whether we’re a threat, according to a new study. The work illustrates how elephants can sometimes protect themselves from human actions.

“It is a most remarkable finding,” says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “Animals associating sounds with danger is nothing new—but making these fine distinctions in human voices is quite remarkable.”

Elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, where the study took place, are killed periodically by Maasai pastoralists. Maasai men sometimes spear the animals to protest park policies   governing grazing and water rights, and sometimes in retaliation for tusking and trampling people or cattle. “Most of the time, the Maasai and elephants co-exist quite well,” says Karen McComb, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. “But spearings do occur, and it’s clear that the elephants are tuned into the Maasai in lots of ways.”

It’s long been known that elephants flee when they encounter Maasai men wearing their distinctive red robes—yet they are far less bothered by other people on foot. Indeed, other studies have shown that the animals even distinguish between the color and scent of clothing worn by Maasai pastoralists and Kamba men, farmers who live in the same area but don’t threaten the animals.

McComb and her colleagues wondered if the Amboseli elephants could make similar distinctions between the voices of the Maasai and Kamba people. The scientists recorded men from the two ethnic groups, as well as Maasai women and boys, saying “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming” in their respective languages. (A Maasai man speaks the phrase in the audio file above.) From a concealed loudspeaker, the team then played back the voice recordings to 47 elephant family groups (which are composed of related adult females and their dependent young) while observing and videotaping the animals’ reactions.

Right “from the get-go, the elephants responded differently to the Maasai and Kamba male voices,” says study co-author Graeme Shannon, a behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. They were more likely to retreat and bunch together, forming a defensive fortress around their young, and to smell the air (raising their trunks skyward) if they heard an adult Maasai man speak. But their reaction was not nearly as defensive when the voice was that of a male Kamba. The animals were also much less fearful when presented with the voices of Maasai women or boys. The scientists also altered the recordings, making the adult male voices sound more female and vice versa. But the elephants weren’t fooled and remained vigilant, the scientists report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Cognitively, they know what they’re doing, and they adjust their reaction to exactly what they’re hearing,” McComb says. In a previous playback experiment, she and her colleagues showed that elephants will often come aggressively toward the loudspeaker when they hear lions (their other predator) roaring, apparently to drive them off. But when the elephants heard the adult Maasai male voices, they never showed this mobbing behavior, and instead formed a defensive bunch and retreated stealthily.

And apparently because the Maasai men present such a serious threat, all the elephant matriarchs, including the youngest, knew how best to respond, the researchers say. “It’s a key skill,” Shannon says, “and is learned by watching; it’s likely not hardwired.” McComb adds that “older matriarchs appeared better at some voice discriminations—in particular, telling the difference between Maasai men and boys so that they only retreated when faced with men’s voices.”

“This study is one more confirmation of just how intelligent and flexible elephants are,” says Joyce Poole, an elephant expert with ElephantVoices in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. “I routinely tell the Maasai I work with that the elephants are studying us more carefully than we are studying them.” The work may be helpful in preventing “human-elephant conflicts where the species co-exist,” adds Joshua Plotnik, a behavioral ecologist at Mahidol University, Kanchanaburi, in Thailand. For instance, elephants might be deterred from entering farmland or encouraged to stick to the corridors designed for their use, Poole says. “The trouble is elephants are too smart to be fooled by us for long.”

Conservationists are also unlikely to be able to use the elephants’ language discerning abilities to stop the poachers armed with machine guns. “The elephants have learned what to do about Maasai men,” Shannon says. “But the Maasai spear only one elephant. Poachers gun down entire families. There’s little elephants can do about that.”

Elephants Have The Most Neurons. Why Aren’t They The Smartest Animals?

We often hear ‘bigger is better’ which might be true for pay-checks but not for other things. I’m of course talking about brains, what else? Nature has an astounding diversity of life, each with a unique brain. Some of those brains grow to be massive organs, like that of the African Elephant with a 5kg brain (11lbs) and 257 billion neurons. Some brains stay tiny, like that of roundworms which comes in at only a fraction of a gram with about 300 neurons in total. Humans rank in between, with a 1.4kg (3lbs) brain and give or take 86 billion neurons.

That begs the question, if humans are outranked by animals such as elephants, why are we the self-proclaimed smartest creature on earth? How is it that an elephant with almost 3 times the number of neurons isn’t laughing at our struggle with quantum mechanics?

Like a late night news-report, the reason might surprise you. To put it bluntly, humans aren’t all that special. Like mentioned above, we don’t have the biggest brain with the most neurons. Nor do we have the brain with the biggest surface area; dolphins beat us there with their amazingly complex brain folds. We get a bit closer if we take body size into account, but we’d lose from a marmoset (a sort of small monkey which honestly isn’t all that bright). A new measure was developed called the ‘encephalisation quotient’ (EQ), which takes into account that the relationship between brain and body size isn’t linear. It’s a whole formula, but it gave us what we needed for our ego, we were on top! Based on our size we have a brain that is 7 times larger than it should be. Sounds great for us, but the measure failed a bit for other animals. The rhesus monkey should be smarter than a gorilla if we were to believe their EQ, which isn’t the case. That puts us back to square one.

Humans don’t stand out that much in general, except when it comes to intelligence. Absolute brain size isn’t what makes us smart, neither is surface area, EQ, or neuron density. Then why is it that an elephant, with a huge brain and more neurons, isn’t as smart or even smarter than a human? This is where neuroscience and biology get a bit tricky, an example might help.


Consider the fastest supercomputer in the world. At the time of writing, that is the Summit made by IBM. It has an impressive 9.216 CPUs, 27.648 GPUs and can make 200 quadrillion calculations per second. For comparison, it would take every person on earth working together, doing 1 calculation per second for almost a year to do what this machine can do in 1 second. It is set to model the universe, explore cancer, and figure out genetics on a scale we cannot imagine. But can it run Minecraft? No it cannot. Yet my old i7 quad-core laptop can run Minecraft just fine. Weird isn’t it, an immense computer with more memory and processing power than fits in my apartment can’t run a simple game that my rickety laptop can? So much for “super” computers.

The truth is, the thing isn’t designed to run Minecraft. It’s made to run those complex astronomical and biological models, while my laptop is designed to run games and various other tasks useful to me. I’m sure with some fiddling you can get any game running on those systems, but you’d definitely get in trouble for that. When comparing brains, the absolute neuron count isn’t the only thing we need to look at. Just like absolute processing power isn’t the only thing you look for when you need to play Minecraft. What’s in a machine, how it’s connected, how it interfaces, all change depending on a computer’s purpose.


Human brains and Elephant brain are different in more ways than one. Different parts have different concentrations of neurons for example. Despite having three times as many neurons, elephants only have a third as many neurons in their cerebral cortex. The cortex just so happens to be the part of the brain we associate with a lot of “higher cognitive functions” and intelligence. All those elephant brain cells are concentrated in other areas, like the cerebellum which is used for movements (that trunk does look very capable).

The way the brain is put together is another factor. We estimate that Neanderthals had bigger brains than us; they had the capacity for a 1600cm3 brain. When researchers recently grew some Neanderthal brain-matter, we saw that they were very different from our own. Human mini-brains were nice, smooth spheres, whereas Neanderthal brains were more like popcorn. The consequences are still not clear, but it does bring us to this point: brains are complicated. Brains aren’t homogenous masses of neurons and support cells. Brains have structure to them, neurons form columns and layers, have specific pathways to send and receive specific information. The way neurons are structured and connected affects what and how they process information. Different animals have different needs, different senses, and different bodies. Brains are formed to deal with all of that. An elephant needs to control its trunk to get food, not solve math problems to get good grades.

As mentioned in the beginning, nature has an astounding diversity of life and brains. Those brains have been sculpted by evolution over millions of years, and evolution doesn’t care about intelligence as much as we do. Evolution is a process without goals; instead it takes more of a “good enough” approach. An organism has to function within its environment. For our elephant, an elephant brain is absolutely perfect for doing elephant things, it’s the pinnacle of elephantness.

Humans had different survival tactics and evolutionary challenges. We didn’t have claws and weren’t very big and strong, instead we were smart and social. In evolutionary terms we bet everything on our brain, which is reflected by our cerebral cortex. Unlike other measurements, our cerebral cortex usually comes out on top compared to other animals. Even when compared to other primates, our cortex is astounding (more so in organization than size). It does require a lot of fuel, making it very reasonable to assume we beat other primates in the intelligence game because we started cooking. But that’s a story for another day.

Intelligence is an elusive concept; we don’t really know for sure what makes one species smarter than another. It’ll be a while before we have definitive answers, but we do know it has to do with a lot of factors. Brain size, number of neurons, number of connections, different structures, densities, how they are connected, they all play a role. No single measure can explain why some animals are smarter than others, let alone why some humans are smarter than others.

An elephant is not as intelligent as a human, because an elephant brain is formed and wired to do elephant things. Just like a supercomputer isn’t made to play Minecraft, but rather focuses on simulating supernovae. Human brains do human things instead of elephant things; in fact we make terrible elephants.

It’s not the size of the brain that matters; it’s how you use it.

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