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Study: Elephants Have Learned To Tell Certain Languages Apart 62

Posted by samzenpus
from the I-think-he-can-hear-you-ray dept.
sciencehabit writes "Whether we realize it, African elephants 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. The work may be helpful in preventing 'human-elephant conflicts where the species co-exist,' says 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. 'The trouble is elephants are too smart to be fooled by us for long.'"
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Study: Elephants Have Learned To Tell Certain Languages Apart

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  • I, for one... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    ... welcome our new pachyderm overlords!

  • by gman003 (1693318) on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:38PM (#46450489)

    I would expect that they're either keying off certain words, or that they're going off phonology (the sounds that are used in a language). It might be a good follow-up study to figure out what method they use to make this distinction (TFA does not say, and the paper is paywalled).

    I also wonder how fine a distinction between languages they can make. How close are the Kamba and Maasai languages? If they're relatively distant (like, say, English and Maasai), how do they deal with closer languages (like English and German, or even Spanish and Portuguese)? Are they able to distinguish accents?

    • by mmell (832646) <mmell@hotmail.com> on Monday March 10, 2014 @07:00PM (#46450617)
      On the other hand, they may be more intelligent than we'd previously thought, or at least possess abilities we've previously overlooked. It may not take a brain the size and configuration of ours to have a circuit capable of discriminating or parsing speech. Conceivably, such an organelle of the elephant brain need not even (grossly) resemble its analog in the human brain. Think of it as A/D on two different chip architectures - they may perform equivalent functions in entirely dissimilar ways, even though both are implemented using the same underlying chip manufacturing techniques.
      • by gman003 (1693318) on Monday March 10, 2014 @07:18PM (#46450739)

        If they do it a completely different way than humans, that's even better because it tells us there's more than one way to do it. Perhaps their way works better given some constraint - a constraint that might be similar to an artificial intelligence's?

        • by rmdingler (1955220) on Monday March 10, 2014 @07:45PM (#46450923)
          Man's hubris is large enough to obscure vision and good judgement.

          When we were little more than barely civilized, our insecurities probably collectively led us to this massive overcompensation that skewed our judgement of the other mammals' intelligence.

          We are now, he said hopefully, so much beyond that infantile assumption that we may one fine day be caught saying, "You are welcome for the fish."

          • by ahabswhale (1189519) on Monday March 10, 2014 @10:49PM (#46452001)

            It's because man always judges intelligence based on human standards, which is completely idiotic. It would be like me (as a programmer) judging an English professor as an idiot because he doesn't understand code. I'm sure from the perspective of elephants, we're pretty fucking stupid at being elephants. Our intellect isn't well suited for their life style and vice versa.

            In short, you're right...human hubris is nearly unbounded. It's very convenient though; we don't have to respect other life on this planet so we can exploit it without regard.

            • On the other hand, they may be more intelligent than we'd previously thought,

              I take it you're not in the field of comparative cognition or animal cognition. Elephants have been known for some time to be very smart. Among the smartest animals after Dolphins and Chimps, respectively. They have complex language, tool usage, learning skills, and social relationships.

              I don't think this study is meant to be a breakthrough understanding of Elephant abilities as much as proof that they possess a specific ability.

              • No, biologists think the are smart for an animal. There's always a qualification. I read articles about this stuff several times a year and I always end up shaking my head about how sad the field of biology is.

              • If I have that right, I'd just like to ask you a direct question. Ever look an elephant in the eye? I have and I get the distinct impression that something in there is looking back at me and thinking.

                Purely a subjective observation - but I don't get that same sense from dogs (who are undeniably intelligent on some level), birds, cats, fish. Chimps and Great Apes, yes. Lions and tigers and bears - not so much. Elephants - yes, it's unscientific but I can't help the feeling that someone is in there look

                • by mmell (832646)
                  Oh, and . . . no. I don't have any formal training or education in any of the cognitive sciences. I'm a computer geek.

                  But I still agree wholeheartedly with your post. I still am curious - ever had the overpowering sense of sentience when dealing with a "lower animal"? Maybe I'm just being anthropomorphic.

          • by ultranova (717540)

            Man's hubris is large enough to obscure vision and good judgement.
            When we were little more than barely civilized, our insecurities probably collectively led us to this massive overcompensation that skewed our judgement of the other mammals' intelligence.

            No, the truth is nastier: if elephants are not intelligent, it's okay to shoot them for ivory. If pigs are not intelligent, it's okay to slaughter them for delicious bacon. And so forth.

            This is, of course, the exact same way humans treat each other too. In

      • by mikael (484)

        If you draw a graph of brain size vs. number of words an animal can learn (parrot = 200, cat = 50, dog = 1000), an elephant should be able to learn hundreds of words. A wild animal like an elephant is going to have to be aware of every possible sound from every possible creature (crocodiles snapping, toads croaking, hyenas fighting, vultures crying, lions fighting, as well as watery sounds like thunderstorms, rain, waterfalls and rivers. Then they can also hear infra-sound as they communicate using low freq

      • possess abilities we've previously overlooked

        Amazing creatures, some of their less well known abilities - They can communicate over long distances (several km) using ultra low frequencies, they pick up the vibrations through their feet, not their ears. In the Congo they dig "post holes" with one foot to mark the correct route where forest paths branch. They can drink stagnant water that would kill most other large mammals, they know the difference from fresh water and no matter how hot and thirsty they cautiously wad in and gently sip the later of fre

    • by Dutch Gun (899105) on Monday March 10, 2014 @07:02PM (#46450631)

      I would expect that they're either keying off certain words, or that they're going off phonology (the sounds that are used in a language). It might be a good follow-up study to figure out what method they use to make this distinction (TFA does not say, and the paper is paywalled).

      I also wonder how fine a distinction between languages they can make. How close are the Kamba and Maasai languages? If they're relatively distant (like, say, English and Maasai), how do they deal with closer languages (like English and German, or even Spanish and Portuguese)? Are they able to distinguish accents?

      Probably the same distinction all sorts of co-habitating animals of different species make when distinguishing between, say, the chattering of harmless monkeys or jungle birds versus the growl of a predatory animal. It makes sense to me, since it seems like the ability to distinguish between animal languages (or even different types of sounds within the same species language) would be a valuable evolutionary trait.

      I'd be surprised if they could distinguish fine accents. If you gauge your own ability, you can typically tell when people are speaking different *major* languages, but not between regional differences of the same language, for instance. Or, very closely-related languages are also hard to distinguish for most people. I'd be surprised if elephants were able to distinguish any better than us.

    • by pspahn (1175617)

      Yeah, the paywall kind of leaves a bunch of stuff to the imagination.

      It's maybe also possible that they are simply smart enough to recall that different specific people use a specific language or that intent is based on things other than language.

      Dogs read our emotions by looking at our facial expressions and other body language. They can then associate those with the words we use. It might seem like the dog understands what we say, but it's just Pavlov up to his old tricks.

      Maybe the elephants use a simi

      • by Miseph (979059)

        "Dogs read our emotions by looking at our facial expressions and other body language. They can then associate those with the words we use. It might seem like the dog understands what we say, but it's just Pavlov up to his old tricks. "

        You know that is exactly how humans do it as well, right? The only difference is that we have a larger vocal recognition center and possess human vocal chords.

      • by sg_oneill (159032)

        Pavlov hasn't really been a thing in neurology or psychology since the 50s. Lets get that clear before we start spouting grossly outdated theories before we really screw up and start spouting freud.

        Dogs do analyse our facial expressions and the like to guage our moods. But its also how humans do it as well. We know that because people who cant, namely people with autism, suffer from something called "mind blindness", the inability to guage the internal states of others.

        The thing is, we can only guess at wha

      • If you'd RTFA, you would know that the elephants in this experiment were responding to recordings of people speaking different languages.
        • by pspahn (1175617)

          I did RTFA. I suppose maybe your comprehension failed you in this instance.

          My point was that maybe these elephants weren't responding to the recordings themselves, but rather their similarity to real memories of real events that have happened in the past. The elephants aren't responding to the sounds themselves but rather to the trauma that is associated with that sound.

          Picture yourself in an alien world. Suddenly, some creature comes up and starts attacking you and making sounds. A little bit later, some

    • by relisher (2955441)
      They had a great BBC interview about this and they mentioned how the elephants could tell apart the Maasai and Kamba languages. The online article on the BBC website also mentions how the elephants can tell apart gender by recognizing changes in the pitch and frequency of the voice. http://www.bbc.com/news/scienc... [bbc.com]
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Indian elephants learn the tones of a language (or tone pattern)
      Elephants are big business [thehindubusinessline.com] in India. They are trucked all the way from East (Assam) to the South (Kerala) in India. The only problem is that these places speak different languages. Usually elephants can obey pretty detailed commands like "pick this palm frond from here and carry it home with you" (so that they can be fed), based on the tone of the voice. It is extremely common for transported elephants to get confused and run amok.
      Even wor
  • Re: "The pachydermsM [wikipedia.org] can tell certain human languages apart and even determine our gender, relative age, and whether we're a threat, according to a new study".

    If it was a new study, it would have found that the proboscidea can tell certain human languages apart and even determine our gender, relative age, and whether we're a threat.
  • by digitalPhant0m (1424687) on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:55PM (#46450573)

    'The trouble is elephants are too smart to be fooled by us for long.'

    We're doomed.

  • by Etherwalk (681268) on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:58PM (#46450597)

    So... the elephants make decisions about danger based on age, gender, and language?

    • by PPH (736903)

      Smarter than the TSA.

      They do seem to profile mice unfairly though.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        They do seem to profile mice unfairly though.

        The elephants know that mice constructed the Earth as a giant supercomputer (making humans only the third most intelligent species on the planet), that mice routinely outsmart much larger predators (cartoon cats), and last, but not least, that a certain pair of genetically-enhanced lab mice are always scheming to take over the world.

        If you were an elephant who "never forgets", wouldn't you be wary of any Orson Well-esque rodent?

  • Maybe some signs pointing the way to the circus
    would be all it takes in this case.
  • by MindPrison (864299) on Monday March 10, 2014 @07:38PM (#46450875) Journal
    I knew it, I wasn't crazy!

    Those pink Elephants have been talking to me for YEARS. All it takes is a few beers, then some more...and there they are, floppy ear pink bastards!
  • by koan (80826) on Monday March 10, 2014 @08:52PM (#46451355)

    elephants have a total of 257 billion neurons, three times more than humans.[1] The elephant's brain is similar to that of humans in terms of structure and complexity—such as the elephant's cortex having as many neurons as a human brain,[2] suggesting convergent evolution.[3]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    Their trunks are also quite dexterous, I'm actually surprised there isn't more tool use amongst them.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

    • Yes, they have brain three times the size of human. But they need to control some 100 times more muscle fibers (7000 Kg vs 70 Kg). They might not have that many neurons left over for mental activity.
  • Though they understand and communicate in human, their ability seems to be confined to the dialect male. They don't understand female. They still use terms like legitimate rape. They use the term "host" instead of "mother" showing their poor grasp of female. Mostly they seem to turn a deaf ear to female.

    Wait. You are not talking about those elephants, are you?

  • Douglas Adams got it wrong - it's the not dolphins who came here from outer space, it's the Elephants!

  • Well african elephants do have bigger ears than the asian ones

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