Elephants see red too

November 14th, 2007 - 2:30 am ICT by admin  
The researchers found that elephants in Kenya reacted with greater fear when they detected the garments worn by the Masai warriors than by Kamba men.

Maasai warriors are known to demonstrate their virility by spearing elephants, while the Kamba agriculturalists pose little threat to these pachyderms.

As the young Masai men typically wear red clothing, the researchers found the elephants responded aggressively to red colour.

“On the basis of earlier anecdotal evidence of elephants’ behaviour toward Masai people and their cattle, we expected that elephants might be able to distinguish among different human groups according to the level of risk that each presents to them, and we were not disappointed,” said lead researcher Richard Byrne of the University of St. Andrews.

“In fact, we think that this is the first time that it has been experimentally shown that any animal can categorize a single species of potential predator into subclasses based on such subtle cues,” added Lucy Bates, also at the University of St. Andrews.

In the current study, the researchers first presented elephants with clean, red clothing and with red clothing that had been worn for five days by either a Masai or a Kamba man.

Findings revealed that in comparison to either a Kamba-worn or unworn garment, Masai-scented clothing motivated elephants to travel significantly faster in the first minute after they began to move.

The elephants also travelled farther from the cloth smelling of the Masai in the first five minutes, and took significantly longer to relax after they stopped running away.

The researchers said this proved that scent played an important tool for the elephants to distinguish friends from foes.

The scientists then tested the elephants to see whether garment colour also served as a cue to classify humans in the absence of scent differences.

The team compared the elephants’ reactions to red versus white cloth and found they reacted with more aggression towards red than white.

Bates said the difference in the elephants’ emotional reaction to odour versus colour possibly related to the amount of risk they sensed in the two situations, adding that elephants had a keen sense of smell.

“With any scent present, fear and escape reactions seem to dominate anything else,” said Bates.

“Elephants’ tendency to flee at the mere whiff of a person may have other implications. While elephants can undoubtedly be dangerous when they come into conflict with humans, our data shows that, given the opportunity, they would far rather run away, even before they encounter the humans in person,” said Byrne.

“We see this experiment as just a start to investigating precisely how elephants see the world, but it may be that their abilities will turn out to equal or exceed those of our closer relatives, the monkeys and apes,” he added.

The study appears in the October 18 online issue of the journal Current Biology. (ANI)

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