Elephants are generally known as intelligent animals. However, a new study suggests that these gentle giants may actually have the ability to differentiate between human languages.

A study conducted by researchers from the University of Sussex shows that elephants have learned how to distinguish between humans from different ethnic groups by listening to human voices and languages. The team conducted its study in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya where several groups of elephants were studied. Using pre-recorded voices from individuals belonging to the Kamba and the Maasai ethnic groups, the researchers were able to observe the reactions of the elephants. The Kamba are more inclined towards agriculture and rarely bother the elephants in the wild. The Maasai, on the other hand, are often embroiled in "territorial disputes" with elephants for grazing and water. The Maasai are known for raising cattle, which sometimes puts them into conflict with their elephant neighbors.

The researchers found that the elephants were prone to reacting defensively when male Maasai voices were played back using loudspeakers. In comparison, the elephants reacted less defensively to the pre-recorded voices of the more agricultural Kamba. After hearing male Maasai voices, the elephants started bunching together into tight groups, a classic sign of elephant defensive behavior. The scientists also observed that elephants were not as guarded when exposed to recordings of female Maasai and young Maasai boys.

Since accurately identifying and gauging threats is an indispensable skill for most animals, this newly discovered ability shows that elephants have been able to adapt to human threats. The study also shows that elephants can be very sensitive to some of the subtleties of human language. The researchers published their findings in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Human predators present a particularly interesting challenge, as different groups of humans can represent dramatically different levels of danger to animals living around them," said Karen McComb, a mammal communication specialist from the University of Sussex and the lead author of the study.

Aside from the impressive ability to gauge a person's age, gender and ethnic group by listening to the human voice, an older study has also shown that elephants can react to certain clothes. In particular, African elephants reacted defensively towards red clothes. Scientists have theorized that this may be a reaction to the fact that most Maasai were red clothes, which the elephants have learned to identify.

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