When we talk about smart animals, we tend to give credit to a few
creatures: chatty dolphins, long-remembering elephants, tool-using
apes, and puzzle-solving crows, to name a few.
But do we really understand just how smart, how able to communicate
thoughts and even, dare we say it, feelings, some animals are?
Most of us don’t give them enough credit, according to a September 13
talk at Cooper Union by ecologist Carl Safina, author of “Beyond
Words: What Animals Think and Feel.”
Take elephants, for example.
African elephants in Amboseli National Park in Kenya can distinguish
the language and voice of Maasai warriors from the language and voices
of farming tribes that live in the same region, Safina explained.
University of Sussex researchers Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon
published a study in 2014 documenting this remarkable ability.
Maasai tribesmen will occasionally attack and kill elephants with
their spears, Safina explained. Elephants know that they’re dangerous.
Even before McComb and Shannon published their work, researchers knew
that elephants would turn defensive, ready to fight, if they saw the
red clothes worn by the warriors. They’d prepare to flee if they
smelled the Maasai attire. But the giant creatures are basically
untroubled if they smell or see clothing worn by farmers of the Kamba
tribe, another group in the region.
McComb and Shannon showed that elephants could also tell the
difference between the Ma language of the Maasai and the language
spoken by the Kamba.
“They have very clear behavioral responses in all of these
situations,” McComb told Virginia Morell of National Geographic when
the study was first published.
So McComb and Shannon decided to see how elephants respond to
language. They recorded men, women, and children from the Maasai
groups and Kamba groups saying a simple phrase in their own tongue:
“Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming.”
The elephants ignored the voices of Maasai women and children, even if
the children were male. They ignored the voices of Kamba men. But when
they heard the Maasai men speaking in their language, they prepared to
“They understand that there are different kinds of people,” Safina
explained in his talk. (That’s more than we can say about most
people’s perception of elephants.)
“The elephants’ decision-making is very precise,” McComb told Morell,
“and it illustrates how they’ve adapted where they can to coexist with
us. They’d rather run away than tangle with a human predator.”
And as Safina points out, this group decision, this shared fear, is a
sort of empathy.
Empathy, as he describes it, is “the ability of a mind to match the
mood of companions.” And in the case of this recognition that someone
dangerous is coming and it’s time to go, it fits the behavior of the
“If everyone around you hurries up, you’ve gotta hurry up,” Safina said.
Unfortunately, these behavioral adaptations aren’t quite able to keep
up with human firepower. They can’t keep away from poachers firing
automatic weapons from helicopters.
“In Roman times, elephants were found from the shores of the
Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope,” with the exception of the
harshest parts of the Sahara, said Safina. Now, these intelligent,
communicative creatures “are being driven extinct so we can carve