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Study: Elephants Have Learned To Tell Certain Languages Apart

samzenpus posted about 6 months ago | from the I-think-he-can-hear-you-ray dept.

Science 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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I, for one... (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450357)

... welcome our new pachyderm overlords!

Re:I, for one... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46452207)

Your dog at home can tell languages apart too, and can identify humans, who are a potential threat easily. With mammals, it probably depends more on how long the animal has been around humans than on the species.

I'm pretty sure dogs can understand me. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450381)

Seriously.

My cats know when I'm up to something. (2)

billstewart (78916) | about 6 months ago | (#46452595)

Sure, they're nowhere near as smart as elephants, but my cats generally know when I'm up to something, whether that's something that could be used to talk me into giving them treats, or something that might get them locked up into the bathroom and maybe shoved in a box and taken to the vet. One of my cats is better at figuring out treats, and usually pretty dumb about being herded somewhere, while the other one's better at figuring out potential bad stuff, but most cats have at least some clue.

Dear mr elephant (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450393)

The black smelly ones generally don't like you eating their food so they get the smart white ones to sell them guns. The smart white ones are a threat in themselves as they might put you into a cage and put you in the belly of a metal bird and put you on display for other smart white ones.

How fine is this distinction? (4, Interesting)

gman003 (1693318) | about 6 months ago | (#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?

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450565)

Paywalls... Grrrrrr! I want to know this information too, dammit!

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450601)

Gotta pay for the studies sohttp://science.slashdot.org/story/14/03/10/2127229/study-elephants-have-learned-to-tell-certain-languages-apart?utm_source=rss1.0mainlinkanon&utm_medium=feed#me how

Re:How fine is this distinction? (4, Insightful)

mmell (832646) | about 6 months ago | (#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.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (3, Insightful)

gman003 (1693318) | about 6 months ago | (#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?

Re:How fine is this distinction? (3, Insightful)

rmdingler (1955220) | about 6 months ago | (#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."

Re:How fine is this distinction? (4, Interesting)

ahabswhale (1189519) | about 6 months ago | (#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.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (2)

schlachter (862210) | about 6 months ago | (#46454869)

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.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

ahabswhale (1189519) | about 6 months ago | (#46455821)

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.

I think you were answering me, not ahabswhale... (1)

mmell (832646) | about 6 months ago | (#46456791)

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 looking back at me.

Re:I think you were answering me, not ahabswhale.. (1)

mmell (832646) | about 6 months ago | (#46456847)

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.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46455071)

Mod parent up. It's at +5, and I request a +6.
 
What? Don't hold me to your human standards!

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

ultranova (717540) | about 6 months ago | (#46454725)

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 the past, suitable victims were determined on the basis of race or religion; in this more civilized time, the prime factor seems to be socioeconomic status.

It's not hubris that's at the core of human evil, it's the willingness to lie to ourselves whenever it's convenient.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (2)

mikael (484) | about 6 months ago | (#46451001)

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 frequency.

Some brain scans were done of elephants and it seemed they had larger brain regions related to hearing.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

TapeCutter (624760) | about 6 months ago | (#46453281)

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 fresh water off the surface with their trunk, the older ones restrain the young and teach them how to do it without stirring up the toxic crap on the bottom.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (4, Insightful)

Dutch Gun (899105) | about 6 months ago | (#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.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46451771)

Jungle Birds distinguish between chatter and growls of monkeys, and humans

Re:How fine is this distinction? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46452987)

humans don't live in the jungle only niggers.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46452715)

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.

Different minds have amazing capabilities. Chimps have an astounding photographic memory, it's baffling to witness. Elephants may have something similar with hearing, they certainly have the ears for it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTgeLEWr614

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

pspahn (1175617) | about 6 months ago | (#46450917)

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 similar mechanism. Their memories are outstanding, so it doesn't seem unreasonable that they simply remember specific people very well and can determine their intentions by body language. Couple that with a recollection of what that person was saying (and what it sounded like) and the elephant then appears to understand differences between languages when what is really happening is they've simply been conditioned to have that response based on a sound being similar to the guy that tried to spear them previously.

I have little idea what a tiger is trying to communicate when it makes sounds, nor do I have much of an idea what a lion is trying to communicate. But if you expose me to some tigers that try to kill me, chances are I will remember what that sounded like later and I'll be able to distinguish the difference between a lion and a tiger.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

Miseph (979059) | about 6 months ago | (#46451105)

"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.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

sg_oneill (159032) | about 6 months ago | (#46451971)

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 what animals can't understand, because they can't tell us otherwise. But we also need to acknowledge these animals for the large part have the same brain parts we do (with a few notable exceptions, like an inability to process grammar) and often display similar reason to us.

We know they tend not to be as smart as us. We've got whacking great big frontal and temporal lobes, but we need to be very careful in assuming they dont understand us, just because they are mute.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

RespekMyAthorati (798091) | about 6 months ago | (#46459759)

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

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

pspahn (1175617) | about 6 months ago | (#46460159)

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 other creature comes up and makes a different sound but is friendly. Later still, someone plays a sound of the attacking creature and observers your frightened response. Language is irrelevant since you cannot tell the "difference" between one creature's "language" or another. They might be the same language, you have no idea. The only thing you know is that when you heard that specific sound, something attacked you.

It might as well be a bell and a milk bone if you ask me.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (2)

relisher (2955441) | about 6 months ago | (#46451063)

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]

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46454575)

Then they are smarter than your average American. 500 years and they still cant manage English.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46451137)

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 worse, elephants in Assam are taught to frolic in water, while in Kerala they are bathed by mahouts. Results in utter confusion when an Assamese elephant goes to a crowded bathing ghat and starts jumping about, with the mahouts running behind the elephant with scrubbers in their hands.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46451863)

Maasai is a Nilotic language and Kamba is a Bantu language, so they are as distant as English and Maasai. I think we should also consider prosody as a candidate for the feature that elephants use to distinguish languages. Like phonology, prosody is about sounds, but it's about the rhythm and stress of the language, rather than the individual sounds (which is actually phonetics, not phonology) and their relationship to one another (phonology).

I think relatively close languages could have very pretty different sound inventories and prosody, so I wouldn't be surprised if they could still make the distinction. Obviously, exposure to at least one of the two languages would likely be necessary to allow for distinction. A lot of humans can't distinguish between two languages that they're not very familiar with and definitely not between two accents of the same unfamiliar language, although who is to say that elephants are not better at this than humans are. Language is a skill humans are wired for, but I'm not sure if distinguishing between two languages, unless one of them is your own, is something that people are particularly good at.

I'd be interested in knowing if the elephants are using parts of their brain that are involved in elephant communication to perform this task or whether they are just using their general auditory skills.

Re:How fine is this distinction? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46453753)

They've got really big ears so I don't see why anyone would be surprised by this.

From the paper: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46454877)

"In particular, even though fundamental frequency and formants were changed to advertise the opposite sex in our expermients, socio-phonetic cues (differences in the way males and females deliver an utterance) would have remainded, women naturally having wider prosodic variation and more "breathy" voices, for example." (p. 3-4)

The article doesn't mention how close the Kamba and Maasai languages are to each other.

Obsolete order. (1)

Truth_Quark (219407) | about 6 months ago | (#46450533)

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.

Re:Obsolete order. (1)

reub2000 (705806) | about 6 months ago | (#46452905)

See the third defintion [wiktionary.org] .

Could be used by potchers to trick them. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450553)

Unlikely but who knows?

We're doomed (4, Funny)

digitalPhant0m (1424687) | about 6 months ago | (#46450573)

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

We're doomed.

Re:We're doomed (1)

Anubis IV (1279820) | about 6 months ago | (#46451529)

We're doomed.

They know, and they never forget.

Do they all go to elephant school? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450595)

I don't think they learned, evolved more likely.

Re:Do they all go to elephant school? (1)

koan (80826) | about 6 months ago | (#46451375)

Better pack a trunk and leave....

Racist Elephants! (2)

Etherwalk (681268) | about 6 months ago | (#46450597)

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

Re:Racist Elephants! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450839)

Why everybody is so shy to say sex ? Hey ! SEX, SEX, SEX ! That's said ! I really doubt elephants refers to cultural or social differences.

Re:Racist Elephants! (1)

PPH (736903) | about 6 months ago | (#46450939)

Smarter than the TSA.

They do seem to profile mice unfairly though.

Re:Racist Elephants! (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46451495)

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?

Right... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46453065)

Because you name age, gender and language, not race. So they are racist.

Logic and you just don't go along do you.

Re:Right... (1)

Etherwalk (681268) | about 6 months ago | (#46453761)

Because you name age, gender and language, not race. So they are racist.

Logic and you just don't go along do you.

Actually, I was just guessing that the different languages spoken were correlated with different races and using that as sufficient evidence of racism to support the joke.

Panem et circenses (1)

Mister Liberty (769145) | about 6 months ago | (#46450865)

Maybe some signs pointing the way to the circus
would be all it takes in this case.

Pink elephants (3, Funny)

MindPrison (864299) | about 6 months ago | (#46450875)

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!

the last one is easy (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46450921)

> even determine our gender, relative age, and whether we're a threat,

The last one is easy.

We're a threat.

By many estimates, we will have killed off wild elephants sometime during the next 10 to 20 years, at the present rates of poaching and habitat destruction.

That means... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46451011)

... the NSA is hiring elephants to spy on us.

Bad experiment (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46451017)

There is no way in heck this is verifiable. I'll accept the elephants can discern one sound from another. But one language from another? Give me a break, that is faith-based science not empirical science. It's an interpretation of the results. It's not the results themselves. Fucking soft science.

Elephants are smarter than you might think (4, Insightful)

koan (80826) | about 6 months ago | (#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]

Re:Elephants are smarter than you might think (1)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about 6 months ago | (#46453449)

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.

Re: Elephants are smarter than you might think (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46453755)

Lol

70kg?! (1)

liamoohay (765499) | about 6 months ago | (#46454837)

You sir have obviously never met us Americans.

Won't we feel silly (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#46452049)

When the first cloned woolly mammoth learns to talk?

Like it? or Not? (1)

Quandell (3511345) | about 6 months ago | (#46453003)

Elephants are listening to us! Maybe they can point those people are back stabbing! Get yourself freak out! Now!

Nah. that is not true. (1)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about 6 months ago | (#46453433)

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 (1)

Hobadee (787558) | about 6 months ago | (#46455463)

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

African elephants (1)

WRX Gav (867999) | about 6 months ago | (#46460177)

Well african elephants do have bigger ears than the asian ones
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