Elephant voice recognition

I posted a few weeks back about elephants (Indian these were) comforting one another when in distress.


Now a report comes about African elephants recognizing which humans are dangerous by their voice and the language they speak.  Researchers played audiotapes in the wild and observed the elephants’ reactions.  Briefly, the elephants sought to escape when they heard a Maasai male’s voice but not a child’s or female’s voice.  Maasai are hunters/herders and known to hurt elephants in competing for the land.  When they played male voices from another tribe speaking a different dialect, the elephants’ reactions showed less concern, more defensive and less escape.  The phrase was a neutral one, something like, “Oh look, here comes an elephant,” spoken in a calm voice.  The report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Here is link to a story about it.


In humans voice recognition is also quite specialized and is lateralized to the right hemisphere.  We recognize individual identities or a stranger’s sex, race, age, emotional state, even intent solely by their voice.  Elephants do not have language (not to the extent that they can tell us about it) but their brains, like all mammalian brains, have some degree of lateralization.  I do not think we know much about this in elephants.  Is their voice recognition also right-sided?  Do they have something like handedness or is their trunk bilaterally controlled?  The identification by dialect implies rather specific feature detectors in their auditory processing system. Interesting but difficult to answer without using elephant EEG or fMRI so I guess and hope we let that mystery be for awhile.


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