Bees Vs Elephants: Pachyderms Have Special Alarm Call To Warn of Buzzing Foes

elephant herd photo

Photo via Kevinzim via Flickr CC

It's strange to think that something as big and thick-skinned as an elephant would be scared of bees. But then when we consider how aggressive African bees are, it shouldn't be such a surprise. We know that elephants are wary of bees. In fact, solutions for farmer-elephant conflict have even been devised by leaning on that fear, with fences touting speakers that make bee hive sounds warding off any elephants looking to invade a farmer's crop. However, it turns out that fear is so deeply rooted into elephants that they even have a special warning call that they sound when they run into a hive. Researchers from Oxford University, Save the Elephants and Disney's Animal Kingdom have found that elephants in Kenya will sound a "rumbling" alarm signal when they hear bees, cuing their herd mates to take cover. Even when an elephant doesn't hear the bees, but just the rumbling warning, they'll head for the hills.

"In our experiments we played the sound of angry bees to elephant families and studied their reaction," said Lucy King of Oxford University's zoology department 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."

Elephants have a complex way of communicating, and their languages are still often a mystery. We know that they can identify each other by voice alone, and they're intelligent enough to identify even different human languages. Yet, we're still struggling to understand theirs. According to the research, published in PLoS One, the scientists are still trying to figure out if the rumbling call is in response to threats other than 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 Kingdom.

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