Friday, October 19, 2007

Elephants Know Good People from Bad

Elephants can apparently smell and see which humans might be out to get them, research now suggests.

As elephants roam Amboseli National Park in Kenya within sight of famed Mt. Kilimanjaro, they may run afoul of members of the Maasai or Kamba tribes. While the Kamba nowadays threaten only elephants that invade their farmland, Maasai warriors occasionally show off their virility by spearing elephants.

Since elephants face different levels of peril from people depending on their tribe, scientists reasoned elephants might use their senses to distinguish who might be dangerous. For instance, the pachyderms might rely on their eyesight—Maasai traditionally wear red shawls.

The scientists also deduced that elephants might employ their keen sense of smell to distinguish Maasai from Kamba. Their body odors likely differ because Maasai eat substantial amounts of milk and occasionally cattle blood and beef while the Kamba diet consists of vegetables and maize, along with some meat. Also, unlike the Kamba, the Maasai use ochre and sheep fat in body decorations.

The researchers had heard of several instances of elephants reacting "to even faint signals of Maasai, with elephants running away from Maasai men that were several kilometers away," said cognitive psychologist Lucy Bates at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The pachyderms even stayed away from a vehicle "for several days after Maasai men had been carried in it."

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