That’s the conclusion of a team of researchers from Save the Elephants, Oxford University and Disney’s Animal Kingdom who have discovered a new alarm call made by elephants in response to the threat of bees. Working with herds of elephants in Kenya, scientists theorize that this unique rumble may warn other herd members of the bees’ presence, prompting pachyderm retreats even when no are bees present.
“The purpose behind these studies is to find a novel way of keeping elephants from raiding the crops of local communities, and thereby reducing “human-elephant conflict,” according to Joseph Soltis, Ph.D., research scientist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “As human populations expand, they move into elephant territory and elephants and people end up sharing the same space. One of the consequences is that elephants start raiding crops, which can end up harming both people and elephants.”
Using an array of microphones hidden in the bush, scientists first recorded the vocal reaction of the elephants to bees and then replayed these elephant rumblings without bees present. When elephants heard this recording through wireless speakers, they behaved the same as they did when bees were present; they shook their heads, threw dust in the air, and ran away from the area. These very low-frequency “rumble” vocalizations are apparently different from other rumbles, leading researchers to believe that that elephants may use their voices to communicate threats to each other.
“The calls give clues that elephants may produce different sounds in the same way that humans produce different vowels, such as changing a word from “bye” to bee,” said Disney’s Soltis. “By altering the position of their tongues and lips, it’s possible that, like with human language, this enables them to give superficially similar-sounding calls with very different meanings.”
The researchers believe such calls may be an emotional response to a threat, a way to coordinate group movements and warn nearby elephants – or even a way of teaching inexperienced and vulnerable young elephants to beware. Despite their thick hides, adult elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks. Young calves could potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have yet to develop this thick protective skin.
This latest discovery is part of an ongoing study of elephants in Kenya. Earlier research found that elephants avoid bee hives in the wild and will also flee from the recoded sound of angry bees. In 2009 a pilot study, researchers found that a fence made out of beehives wired together significantly reduced crop raids by elephants.
The current results are reported in the scientific journal PLoS One. According to researchers, further work is needed to confirm whether the rumble call is used for other kinds of threats, not just bees.