We’ve long recognized that elephants are highly intelligent, deeply social creatures. They’re known for their intense empathy and grieving rituals; experts have observed elephants mourning the loss of of their fellow elephants as well as their human and canine companions. Now, scientists are exploring the complexities of how elephants communicate, and have discovered that the incredible creatures use distinct warning sounds to alert herd members of different impending dangers.

Back in 2010, researchers from University of Oxford and Save the Elephants found that elephants warn each other about approaching bees by emitting a rumbling alarm sound.  The discovery was made as part of an ongoing Kenyan project to reduce conflict between human farmers and elephants. Now, these Kenyan-based scientists have discovered the elephants making a second, distinct warning call when humans pose a threat.

Researchers recorded the voices of the Samburu, a local North Kenyan tribe, and played the audio recordings to relaxing elephants. The elephants immediately ran away from the sound while making a low rumbling noise. Scientists recorded the sound, and later determined that the “Samburu alarm rumble” is distinct from the previously discovered “bee alarm rumble.” Even more intriguingly, the elephants responded with more fear and aggression to signs of Masaai pastoralists, who are known to kill elephants, than to Kamba agriculturalists, who are less threatening.

“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,” said Dr. Lucy King, who co-led the study.  “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.”

Image Source: Mister Queue/Flickr