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Study: Elephants Have Learned To Tell Certain Languages Apart 62

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 on Monday March 10, 2014 @06:23PM (#46450357)

    ... welcome our new pachyderm overlords!

  • by mmell ( 832646 ) 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 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 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) Journal
    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 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] []

    Their trunks are also quite dexterous, I'm actually surprised there isn't more tool use amongst them. []

"This is lemma 1.1. We start a new chapter so the numbers all go back to one." -- Prof. Seager, C&O 351