Elephants use smell to identify enemy tribes
By ELLEN CREAGER
The elephant uses smell and colour-coding to pick out its enemies from different African tribes, scientists have found.
It has learned to identify potentially dangerous Maasai warriors by their smell and by their traditional red clothing.
This ability to categorise may help establish that the elephant is equally as intelligent as our closer primate relatives such as the chimpanzee and ape.
The elephant roams vast areas of Tanzania and Kenya and often come into contact with the Maasai who measure their wealth in terms of the cattle they own. In the past Maasai warriors proved their manhood by killing a lion or by spearing an elephant.
The study, led by Dr Lucy Bates and Professor Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews, found that the elephant has become remarkably adept at recognising the degree of threat posed by the different tribes.
They carried out a series of experiments at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in a protected 150 square-mile area in southern Kenya which has been studying the elephant for more than 35 years.
Elephants were first presented with clean, red clothing and with red clothing that had been worn for five days by either a Maasai or a Kamba man. The Kamba people are farmers who pose little threat to the elephant.
The study found that Maasai-scented clothing led the elephants to travel much faster in the first minute after they moved away. The elephants also travelled farther in the first five minutes, and took significantly longer to relax after they stopped running away.
The scientists then investigated whether elephants also used garment colour in classifying a potential threat and found that the elephants reacted with aggression towards red but not to white cloth, suggesting that they associated the colour red with the Maasai.
The difference in the elephants' emotional reaction to odour versus colour might relate to the amount of risk they sense in the two situations, encouraged by a particularly keen sense of smell.
"With any scent of Maasai present, fear and escape reactions seem to dominate anything else," said Dr Bates.
Professor Byrne said the elephant had been able to make a connection between the colour red and the Maasai who they categorised as dangerous.
"We see this experiment as just a start to investigating precisely how elephants 'see the world,' and it may be that their abilities will turn out to equal or exceed those of our closer relatives, the monkeys and apes," he said.
" The elephant is a very distant relative and is more closely related to an aardvark than a primate so if they do have this cognitive ability to categorise people in the same way humans do, then that certainly evolved quite independently."
The experiments had also shown that the elephant was not a rampaging man-killer and that its tendency to speed off at the mere scent of a Maasai may have other implications.
Professor Byrne said: "While elephants can undoubtedly be dangerous when they come into conflict with humans, our data show that, given the opportunity, they would far rather run away, even before they encounter the humans in person.
The study is published online by Current Biology and will appear in the November 20 print issue.