Elephants Distinguish Human Friends From Foes by Smell

October 18, 2007

The mere whiff of a Maasai man's clothing is enough to strike fear in African elephants and send them thundering to the safety of tall grasses, according to a new study.

Maasai men have been known to occasionally spear elephants, perhaps as a ritual to show virility.

Clothing worn by less threatening Kamba men, however, evokes a milder reaction.

"They think about people in the way you and I think about people," said study co-author Richard Byrne, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K.

"There are different types [of people] and they have different characteristic behaviors and—if I was an elephant—very different implications, some of them being the type who occasionally spear you."

Elephants, he added, categorize each group of people differently.

The finding suggests that elephants have learned to perceive the degree of danger various ethnic groups pose to their well-being, Byrne and colleagues at St. Andrews and the Kenya-based Amboseli Trust for Elephants conclude in the current issue of the journal Current Biology.

(Related: "Elephants 'Learn' to Avoid Land Mines in War-Torn Angola [July 16, 2007].)

Red Cloths

The Maasai are pastoralists—they herd cattle and thus may pick up cattle odors, Byrne noted. In addition, they wear body decorations of ochre and sheep fat that have a distinctive smell.

The Maasai diet is also based around milk and cattle, which Byrne said produces a different body odor than that of Kamba men, who rely on agriculture and eat a more Western diet of meat and vegetables.

The researchers exposed elephants in the field to a red garment worn by a Maasai, a Kamba, or no one at all and studied the reaction.

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