Elephants ready to rumble at sound of bees (w/ Video)

Apr 26, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- For the first time elephants have been found to produce an alarm call associated with the threat of bees, and have been shown to retreat when a recording of the call is played even when there are no bees around.

A team of scientists from Oxford University, Save the Elephants, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, made the discovery as part of an ongoing study of elephants in Kenya. They report their results in the journal PLoS One.

‘In our experiments we played the sound of angry bees to elephant families and studied their reaction,’ said Lucy King of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and charity Save the Elephants, who led the research. ‘Importantly we discovered elephants not only flee from the buzzing sound but make a unique ‘rumbling’ call as well as shaking their heads.’

The team then looked to isolate the specific acoustic qualities associated with this rumbling call and played the sounds back to the elephants to confirm that the recorded call triggered the elephants’ decision to flee even when there was no buzzing and no sign of any bees.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

‘We tested this hypothesis using both an original recording of the call, a recording identical to this but with the frequency shifted so it resembled a typical response to white noise, and another elephant rumble as a control,’ said King. ‘The results were dramatic: six out of ten elephant families fled from the loud speaker when we played the ‘bee rumble’ compared to just two when we played a control rumble and one with the frequency-shifted call. Moreover, we also found that the elephants moved away much further when they heard the ‘bee’ alarm call than the other rumbles.’

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. Further work is needed to confirm whether the rumble call is used for other kinds of threats, not just bees.

‘The calls also give tantalising clues that elephants may produce different sounds in the same way that humans produce different vowels, by altering the position of their tongues and lips,’ said Dr Joseph Soltis of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. ‘It’s even possible that, rather like with human language, this enables them to give superficially similar-sounding calls very different meanings.’

Earlier Oxford University research found that elephants avoid bee hives in the wild and will also flee from the recorded sound of angry bees. In 2009 a pilot study led by King showed that a fence made out of beehives wired together significantly reduced crop raids by elephants. The team hopes that the new findings could help develop new ways to defuse potential conflicts between humans and elephants.

Despite their thick hides adult elephants can be stung around their eyes or up their trunks, whilst calves could potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have yet to develop this thick protective skin.

Explore further: New England Aquarium offering penguins 'honeymoon suites'

More information: A report of the research, entitled ‘Bee threat elicits alarm call in African elephants’, is published in PLoS One.

Related Stories

Beehive fence deters elephant raiders

Jun 05, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A fence made out of beehives wired together has been shown to significantly reduce crop raids by elephants, Oxford University scientists report.

Elephants' fear of angry bees could help to protect them

Oct 08, 2007

At a time when encroaching human development in former wildlife areas has compressed African elephants into ever smaller home ranges and increased levels of human-elephant conflict, a study in the October 9th issue of Current Bi ...

Pygmy elephants tracked by GPS

Dec 17, 2005

A satellite used by the U.S. military to track vehicle convoys in Iraq is helping the World Wildlife Fund shed light on the pygmy elephants in Malaysia.

Fewer elephants with tusks born in China

Jul 18, 2005

More of China's male elephants reportedly are being born without tusks because hunting of the animals for their ivory is affecting the gene pool.

Elephants can 'smell danger'

Oct 18, 2007

Researchers at the University of St Andrews have found that elephants are remarkably perceptive when it comes to recognising the degree of danger posed by different groups of individuals.

Study: Elephants might seek revenge

Feb 16, 2006

An increasing number of incidents involving African elephants attacking humans is leading some scientists to believe the animals may be seeking revenge.

Recommended for you

Telling the time of day by color

Apr 17, 2015

Research by scientists at The University of Manchester has revealed that the colour of light has a major impact on how the brain clock measures time of day and on how the animals' physiology and behavior adjust accordingly. ...

Aphrodisiac for fish and frogs discovered

Apr 17, 2015

A supplement simply added to water has been shown to boost reproduction in nematodes (roundworms), molluscs, fish and frogs – and researchers believe it could work for humans too.

Evolution puts checks on virgin births

Apr 17, 2015

It seems unnatural that a species could survive without having sex. Yet over the ages, evolution has endowed females of certain species of amphibians, reptiles and fish with the ability to clone themselves, ...

Humans can't resist those puppy-dog eyes

Apr 16, 2015

When humans and their four-legged, furry best friends look into one another's eyes, there is biological evidence that their bond strengthens, researchers report.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.