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Sniffing Out Enemies October 22, 2007

Posted by Mrs Weird Scientist in Animals, Elephants, Evolution, Think About It.
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Credit: Lucy Bates of St Andrews University for New Scientist.

Imagine if your sense of smell could differentiate between your enemies and your friends? Sound impossible? Not for African bush elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, according to a new study led by Lucy Bates at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. More on the study can be read in the Current Biology journal. The study results show that elephants have developed a sophisticated means to identify the humans who pose a threat versus those who mean no harm – through scent recognition!

Let The Sniffing Begin

Bates and her team started out by putting three bits of red clothing near the elephants. One piece was totally clean, one was worn by a Masai warrior (elephant hunter!) and the last piece was worn by a local Kamba farmer. What’s the scoop? Well, the elephants ran faster and further from the clothing worn by the Masai warrior as opposed to the clean clothing and the clothing worn by the harmless farmer. Not only that, but the researchers wanted to see if red clothing in general would cause a greater reaction than white clothing. Why check this? It’s because the Masai warriors usually wear red clothing. So, the researchers took clean red clothing bits and clean white ones. Uh oh! The elephants reacted very aggressively to the red clothing, showing that they not only sniff out their enemies but that they visually identify traits to watch out for! Bates had some cool stuff to say about these smart elephants:

This is the most sophisticated level of group identification within species for any animal other than people.

Elephants Are Advanced

Although studies have been done on other animals showing that they can recognize different groups, most of these were related to sound recognition. It’s thought that scent recognition – especially given that human smells are so complex – is an advanced ability. Identifying friends and foe through visual means also helps to improve an elephant’s ability to avoid harm. So, on the off chance you’re ever wandering through Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, it might just be a good idea to avoid wearing red clothing lest you anger the intelligent elephants! Fortunately – since the elephants would be unfamiliar with your smell – your scent shouldn’t pose any threat. Whew!

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