National Geographic News
Asian elephants, Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, INDONESIA

Asian elephants, Way Kambas National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia

Photograph by Cyril Ruoso, Minden/Corbis

Helen Thompson

for National Geographic

Published September 10, 2013

When an old African elephant matriarch hears a lion roar out on the savanna, she listens to discern whether it's a male or female. Why does she care? Because male lions are more likely to attack. (See: "Older Elephants Know the Best Anti-Lion Moves.")

Not many predators can take down an elephant, so it's useful for the massive mammals to know when it's worth their effort to run away. "We know that African elephants have very sophisticated discrimination abilities," says Lucy Bates, a research fellow at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. They also respond to the buzz of disturbed African honeybees, and can smell the difference between human friends and foes.

Conservationists hope to use elephants' keen senses to reduce conflicts that arise when elephants munch on humans' crops. Until now, researchers have focused on African elephants, but the first study with Asian elephants shows them to be equally adept at sensing threats.

So, what's new? A study published in Biology Letters today suggests that wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) can tell the growls of various big cats apart and know which pose more danger to them.

Co-author Vivek Thuppil, an animal behaviorist at the University of California, Davis, heard about a farmer in southern India who played a recording of a tiger growl to scare elephants off his property. Thuppil and his colleagues wanted to test the strategy. Using video cameras camouflaged with elephant dung, they documented Asian elephants' reactions to pre-recorded tiger and leopard growls along village farm roads in southern India at night—prime raiding time.

When the elephants heard the tiger growls, they crept silently away. Leopard growls elicited a very different reaction—stomping, circling, and trumpet calls—although the elephants did eventually retreat. "You don't want to get involved with anything that has claws and teeth," says Thuppil. "So, they eventually decided to choose the safe option, which was interesting."

Watch elephants run from a leopard growl.

 

What does this mean? A leopard probably couldn't do much damage to an elephant, while tigers sometimes eat elephant calves and could seriously injure adults. "It would pay for the elephants to recognize when a tiger is nearby so they can retreat, without wasting time by running away for every big-cat growl they hear," says Bates, who was not affiliated with the study.

Unique guttural pulse patterns in each animal's growl may help Asian elephants differentiate between the two feline species. Elephants growl too, and have evolved to recognize growls from different individuals in their herd based on small acoustic differences. That capacity might translate to helping them distinguish between tiger and leopard growls, says Thuppil.

Why is this important? In India, more than 200 people die in elephant attacks annually, while humans kill at least that many elephants each year. Since deaths on both sides are often related to crop raiding, new methods of keeping the peace between humans and elephants are in high demand.

"This study adds to our growing knowledge of how elephants perceive the world, and it is exciting because it could have implications for the struggle to reduce human-elephant conflict," says Bates.

What's next? Broadcasting tiger growls over speakers could be an easy way to trick elephants into steering clear of Indian villages. But that conservation strategy might stop working if elephants get used to hearing the sounds. "Something like this would need to be more fine-tuned," says Thuppil. One way to do that is to simulate a moving threat by playing a sound in different places; that's the UC Davis team's next research project.

6 comments
manish kehr
manish kehr

hmmm..... tigers and leopards growls, may keep the elephants at bay but not the poachers . since their sense of hearing is so sharp , why is it still that they are easy prey to poachers, who stalk them in the dead of the night?but the efforts of vivek thuppils team are laudable. I hope their next project which is co related to this one is succesful too. we need to save precious wildlife. Thank You All.

robert brooke
robert brooke

Do Asian elephants display an ability to distinguish between male and female tiger growls?Are male tigers more likely to attack?

Michael Tsark
Michael Tsark

I'm guessing sound waves alone may not permanently suffice until combined with occasional male lion pheromones as well?

Marilyn Friesen
Marilyn Friesen

Great idea! Now to figure out a way to scare the elephants away from poachers who want the ivory.

Marilyn Friesen
Marilyn Friesen

That is very interesting. Now to find a way to keep the poachers away from them!

Vivek Thuppil
Vivek Thuppil

@Michael Tsark We conducted this study in areas that had real tigers and leopards living in the environment -- our video cameras recorded them walking past on numerous occasions. Thus, it's quite possible that there were felid-related scent cues in the environment, enhancing the credibility of our playbacks.

Share

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

See more innovators »

Latest Photos Galleries

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »