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Elephants can tell men’s voices from women’s

Herds huddle closer when they hear speech they may recognize as dangerous

3:20pm, March 10, 2014

THE VOICE  A study of how elephants respond to human voices broadcast from a portable speaker suggests that Amboseli National Park’s elephants can tell a lot about a person just from how he or she talks.

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Elephants may pick up on differences between the voices of men and women, and even between the speech sounds of two African ethnic groups.

In tests in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, recordings of men’s voices, or of Maasai voices versus those of another ethnic group, were especially likely to prompt a bit of defensive behavior among family groups of elephants. Animals tended to edge closer together and change their travel direction, report Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, and her colleagues.

Playing recorded human voices to elephants “was a way of getting at whether they could pick up very subtle vocal cues to pick out which were the most dangerous situations, when faced with a really versatile predator,” she says.

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