London: For the first time, elephants
have been found to produce an alarm call associated with the
threat of bees, and have been shown to retreat when a
recording of the call is played even when there are no bees
A team of scientists from Oxford University, Save the
Elephants, and Disney's Animal Kingdom, made the discovery as
part of an ongoing study of elephants in Kenya, according to a
University of Oxford statement.
"In our experiments we played the sound of angry bees
to elephant families and studied their reaction," said Lucy
King of Oxford University's Department of Zoology and charity
Save the Elephants, who led the research.
"Importantly we discovered elephants not only flee
from the buzzing sound but make a unique 'rumbling' call as
well as shaking their heads."
The team then looked to isolate the specific acoustic
qualities associated with this rumbling call and played the
sounds back to the elephants to confirm that the recorded call
triggered the elephants' decision to flee even when there was
no buzzing and no sign of any bees.
"We tested this hypothesis using both an original
recording of the call, a recording identical to this but with
the frequency shifted so it resembled a typical response to
white noise, and another elephant rumble as a control," said
"The results were dramatic: six out of ten elephant
families fled from the loud speaker when we played the 'bee
rumble' compared to just two when we played a control rumble
and one with the frequency-shifted call.
Moreover, we also found that the elephants moved away
much further when they heard the 'bee' alarm call than the
The researchers believe such calls may be an emotional
response to a threat, a way to coordinate group movements and
warn nearby elephants or even a way of teaching
inexperienced and vulnerable young elephants to beware.
Further work is needed to confirm whether the rumble
call is used for other kinds of threats, not just bees.
"The calls also give tantalising clues that elephants
may produce different sounds in the same way that humans
produce different vowels, by altering the position of their
tongues and lips," said Dr Joseph Soltis of Disney's Animal
"It's even possible that, rather like with human
language, this enables them to give superficially
similar-sounding calls very different meanings."
Earlier Oxford University research found that
elephants avoid bee hives in the wild and will also flee from
the recorded sound of angry bees.
In 2009 a pilot study led by King showed that a fence
made out of beehives wired together significantly reduced crop
raids by elephants.
The team hopes that the new findings could help
develop new ways to defuse potential conflicts between humans
Despite their thick hides adult elephants can be stung
around their eyes or up their trunks, whilst calves could
potentially be killed by a swarm of stinging bees as they have
yet to develop this thick protective skin.
First Published: Tuesday, April 27, 2010, 15:02