African elephants may have human-specific alarm calls

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Joseph Soltis et al., "African Elephant Alarm Calls Distinguish between Threats from Humans and Bees", PLoSOne 2/26/2014:

The Samburu pastoralists of Northern Kenya co-exist with African elephants, Loxodonta africana, and compete over resources such as watering holes. Audio playback experiments demonstrate that African elephants produce alarm calls in response to the voices of Samburu tribesmen. When exposed to adult male Samburu voices, listening elephants exhibited vigilance behavior, flight behavior, and produced vocalizations (rumbles, roars and trumpets). Rumble vocalizations were most common and were characterized by increased and more variable fundamental frequencies, and an upward shift in the first [F1] and second [F2] formant locations, compared to control rumbles. When exposed to a sequence of these recorded rumbles, roars and trumpets, listening elephants also exhibited vigilance and flight behavior. The same behavior was observed, in lesser degrees, both when the roars and trumpets were removed, and when the second formants were artificially lowered to levels typical of control rumbles. The “Samburu alarm rumble” is acoustically distinct from the previously described “bee alarm rumble.” The bee alarm rumbles exhibited increased F2, while Samburu alarm rumbles exhibited increased F1 and F2, compared to controls. Moreover, the behavioral reactions to the two threats were different. Elephants exhibited vigilance and flight behavior in response to Samburu and bee stimuli and to both alarm calls, but headshaking behavior only occurred in response to bee sounds and bee alarm calls. In general, increasingly threatening stimuli elicited alarm calls with increases in F0 and in formant locations, and increasing numbers of these acoustic cues in vocal stimuli elicited increased vigilance and flight behavior in listening elephants. These results show that African elephant alarm calls differentiate between two types of threat and reflect the level of urgency of threats.

Here's an example of the human-alarm rumble:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

An article at, "Do elephants call 'human!'?", has a video of elephants reacting to playback of such rumbles.

This work follows up on Lucy King et al., "Bee Threat Elicits Alarm Call in African Elephants", PLoSOne 4/26/2010:

Unlike the smaller and more vulnerable mammals, African elephants have relatively few predators that threaten their survival. The sound of disturbed African honeybees Apis meliffera scutellata causes African elephants Loxodonta africana to retreat and produce warning vocalizations that lead other elephants to join the flight. In our first experiment, audio playbacks of bee sounds induced elephants to retreat and elicited more head-shaking and dusting, reactive behaviors that may prevent bee stings, compared to white noise control playbacks. Most importantly, elephants produced distinctive “rumble” vocalizations in response to bee sounds. These rumbles exhibited an upward shift in the second formant location, which implies active vocal tract modulation, compared to rumbles made in response to white noise playbacks. In a second experiment, audio playbacks of these rumbles produced in response to bees elicited increased headshaking, and further and faster retreat behavior in other elephants, compared to control rumble playbacks with lower second formant frequencies. These responses to the bee rumble stimuli occurred in the absence of any bees or bee sounds. This suggests that these elephant rumbles may function as referential signals, in which a formant frequency shift alerts nearby elephants about an external threat, in this case, the threat of bees.

[Hat tip to Shermin de Silva]




  1. Sili said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

    If I recall my QI correctly, gophers are supposed to be very specific. Apparently they can tell tall people from short and yellow from red – but not male from female. Not that surprising now that I type it out …

  2. Todd said,

    March 9, 2014 @ 9:44 pm


    Prairie dogs, not gophers.

  3. maidhc said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 2:37 am

    Right, prairie dogs have different alarm calls for ground predators like badgers and snakes than for flying threats like hawks. Not that I'm an expert, but I just saw a television show about it. Didn't say anything about gophers.

    Crows also have quite a variety of different calls with specific meanings.

  4. michael farris said,

    March 10, 2014 @ 4:26 am

    IIRC red vervet monkeys also have threat-specific alarm calls (for flying, walking-running and crawling threats respectively).

    Also IIRC the system (while closed) has to be learned by young monkeys and alarm calls given by very young monkeys have to be verified by an older monkey before it's acted on.

    [(myl) The classic reference for vervet alarm calls is Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, How Monkeys See the World.

    Some relevant LLOG posts:
    "Prairie dog talk", 12/8/2004
    "Monkey words", 5/28/2006
    "Prairiedogspeak", 7/1/2006
    "Ineffable apes", 6/2/2007
    "'Chimps have tons to say but can't say it'", 1/11/2010


  5. Vertebrat said,

    March 11, 2014 @ 12:08 am

    So they say [i] for bees, [a] for humans, and [u] for unknown noises?

  6. Holly said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 1:50 am

    I love the audio file of the elephants here- is there any way to download it?

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