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Elephants Use Sight and Smell to Know Friend From Foe
ele December 2, 2007

It is important to know your friends from your enemies. It's easy for us to do, but can other animals do the same? Elephants can! They use their sense of vision and smell to tell the difference between people who pose a threat and those who do not.

In Kenya, researchers found that elephants react differently to clothing worn by men of the Maasai and Kamba ethnic groups. Young Maasai men spear elephants and pose a threat to elephants; Kamba men are mainly farmers and are not a danger to elephants.ele

When the elephants detected the smell of clothing worn by a Maasai man, they moved away from the smell faster, traveled further from the smell, and took longer to relax than when they detected the smells of either clothing worn by Kamba men or clothing that was not worn at all. The elephants also always moved to tall grass after smelling Maasai-worn clothing, something they rarely did when they smelled Kamba-worn clothing. Maasai men typically wear RED clothing. When the elephants saw RED, unworn clothing, they reacted differently. Rather, than running away, the elephants acted aggressively toward the red clothing.ele

The researchers interpret these results to differences in the emotional reaction of the elephants to the smells and sights. Smelling a potential danger means that a threat is nearby and the best thing to do is run away and hide. Seeing a potential threat without its smell means that risk is low -- perhaps a Maasai man was in the area, but has left. Therefore, instead of fear, the elephants show aggression.

Elephant Facts: water

(Fact references: Nieuwenhuys, R., Ten Donkelaar, H.J. and Nicholson, C., The Central Nervous System of Vertebrates, Vol. 3, Berlin: Springer, 1998; Peters, A. and Jones, E.G., Cerebral Cortex, New York: Plenum Press, 1984; Shoshani et al., Elephant brain. Part I: Gross morphology functions, comparative anatomy, and evolution, Brain Res. Bulletin, 70:124-157, 2006.)

References and more information:

  1. Bates, L.A., Sayialel, K.N., Njiraini, N.W., Moss, C.J., Poole, J.H. and Byrne, R.W., Elephants classify human ethnic groups by odor and garment color, Curr. Biol., 17:1938-1942, 2007.
  2. Amazing Animal Senses - Neuroscience for Kids

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