Elephants Are Not Ethnic-Blind

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I have had this experience. I've traveled literally hundreds of kilometers by foot together with Efe (Pygmy) hunters in the Ituri Forest. We see very few animals. The few we do see are attacked, killed, and eaten. Well, a lot of them actually get away, but that is the idea.

But I've also traveled many kilometers (not as many) alone. I would see many animals, and yes, they would run (or climb or whatever) away, but not as desperately. They knew I was not really one of the hunters, although I tried my best to look tough and hungry.

Of course, when I use the word "animal" here I mean mammals and birds mainly. Insects, not so much.

I've had similar experiences elsewhere in Africa as well, where what we humans would call "ethnicity" was obviously being picked up by mammals.

Well, now there is some research to back this up:

Some species distinguish several species of predator, giving differentiated warning calls and escape reactions; here, we explore an animal's classification of subgroups within a species. We show that elephants distinguish at least two Kenyan ethnic groups and can identify them by olfactory and color cues independently. In the Amboseli ecosystem, Kenya, young Maasai men demonstrate virility by spearing elephants (Loxodonta africana), but Kamba agriculturalists pose little threat. Elephants showed greater fear when they detected the scent of garments previously worn by Maasai than by Kamba men, and they reacted aggressively to the color associated with Maasai. Elephants are therefore able to classify members of a single species into subgroups that pose different degrees of danger.

Here is a picture of elephants upset by exposure to Maasai clothing:


And here's the data to back it up:


This research demonstrates that elephants discriminate both using olfaction and vision, with these two sources of information processed separately and accurately, to assess risk from different sorts of people. Considering the amount of energy one must spend ... and time one must waste .. running away from threats, this does indeed make a lot of sense.

BATES, L. A., SAYIALEL, K. N., NJIRAINI, N. W., MOSS, C. J., POOLE, J. H. & BYRNE, R.W. (2007): Elephants Classify Human Ethnic Groups by Odor and Garment Color.. Curr Biol, , .


More like this

And as we know from Mythbusters, they're scared of mice. Are they scared of hamsters?

If a dungball rolled over at my feet and a little critter of _any_ species scurried out, _I_ would certainly give a start! They did a nice control of a tipping-dungball with no mouse, but forgot the other control of "Is it just elephants?" I can see lots of other megafauna spooking too.

Very cool report! It calls to mind, re: elephants, this NY Times article on the increasing aggression by elephants on humans in settings related to habitat pressure, poaching and the elephant experience of murdered family members. Vengence? How "human"!


Perhaps the boundaries where we cross into anthropomorphizing are farther out than most of us think?

By Don Burkins (not verified) on 24 Nov 2007 #permalink

Seems interesting. Were the tests done blindly, though? (i.e., were the smells and colors presented to the elephants by people who knew what they were?)

also, why no link to the paper?

Don Burkins: Or, perhaps the boundaries surrounding humanity aren't so absolute as most of us think? Given that many dogs can distinguish among individuals, I find it no surprise that elephants can tell hunters from farmers by observation!

By David Harmon (not verified) on 24 Nov 2007 #permalink

I have heard of several instances here in South Africa where elephants in captivity (game farms, not cages) have shown extreme aggression towards white people, singling them out in groups and sometimes even tracking groups of people, ambushing them and attacking the white people even if black people are closer.

I have been told that this is because elephants are exposed to white people in the form of vets or hunters and associate them with pain. Oftentimes the elephants are transported to the farms as calves and held in smaller holding pens before being released. During this time they are fed and petted by workers who tend to be black, reinforcing the stereotype that white people are "bad" and black people are "good".

One has to wonder how good their memories really are - if they were exposed to both "good" and "bad" black AND white people, would they start singling out people from both races with certain features?

This doesn't only happen with elephants, though. A particularly interesting case involved a British lady with reddish hair who came to hunt a lion. She shot at one, but only wounded it and it got away. She returned to South Africa the following year to try again. While part of a large (about 7 people, if I recall correctly) hunting party, a lion stormed, seemingly out of nowhere, into the group, ignored everyone in its way and targeted her specifically. She was severely injured, but survived. The lion was killed and identified as the one she had wounded the year before.

Personally, I get the same sense of satisfaction hearing about elephants attacking their tormentors, as I do when I hear about a bull goring goring a toreador or cracking a rodeo riders head open.

I recall a news story on the use of Ghambian Giant Jumping Rats in searching out landmines scattered around during one of a number of small wars in Africa. The story noted that the animal's biggest drawback was its inability to reliably discriminate between people, being ready to bond with most anyone who said hello.

I'm always thrilled to read the continuing evidence that animals are smarter than we previously imagined. Evermore evidence for evolutionary lineage. Now show me a primate that statistically throws poo more often at creationists than normal people and I'll die at that moment a happy man.

On a side note, I wonder what animal rights activists will make of this?

By Michael X (not verified) on 24 Nov 2007 #permalink

I wonder if Zebrafish can distinguish harmless aquarists like me, from mad biologists who julienne their spinal cords. I hope so. Lest the end be swift and terrible and certain.

Not elephantine, but discriminating nonetheless, I give you the movie "White Dog" from 1982:


Dovetails with Prazzie's stories, but much more North American.

By DocAmazing (not verified) on 25 Nov 2007 #permalink

Prazzie: A particularly interesting case involved a British lady with reddish hair who came to hunt a lion.

It was always my understanding that cats (and most other mammals) were red-green color blind. Perhaps the lion remembered her smell?

By Sean Peters (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

So.. Elephants profile..

If It happens in nature, why is it frowned upon when the police do it?