Asian elephants distinguish the calls of feline predator species

In September, Vivek Thuppil and Dr. Richard G. Coss from UC Davis published a paper in the journal Biology Letters regarding wild Asian elephant behavior towards pre-recorded tiger and leopard growls while attempting to crop raid. They found out that elephants silently retreat from tiger growls, but aggressively vocalize their presence when confronted with leopard recordings. According to previous research, tigers tend to prey on elephant calves while leopards are essentially harmless. This study is the first to investigate the inner-workings of elephant antipredator behavior at night.

Direction in which elephants emerge from the forest to trigger playback (courtesy of Vivek Thuppil)

In order to conduct their research, they set up speakers around villages near the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in southern India. These speakers played the pre-recorded tiger and leopard growls whenever the elephants tripped an infrared beam. The results were very interesting. Thuppil and Coss determined that the elephants eventually retreated cautiously from both predator playbacks, but they were able to differentiate between the two species and the levels of danger and thus their immediate reactions differed. The wild elephants quietly dodged tigers that could harm their calves but aggressively growled and trumpeted at leopards.

Speaker at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (courtesy of Vivek Thuppil)

Speaker at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (courtesy of Vivek Thuppil)

This study can perhaps be used as a conservation technique to deter elephant crop raiding (at least in areas with tigers). Crop raiding has increasingly become an matter of concern in India because farmers often go to any lengths necessary, such as using electric fences and firecrackers, to keep elephants away from their crops. As a result, hundreds of deaths have occurred as well as the loss of many crops because of these elephant-human encounters. Local farmers could potentially use tiger recordings to scare off elephants, but as Thuppil and Coss stated, many more studies will have to be conducted to determine the feasibility of this possible conservation technique.

You can see videos of the elephants’ reactions to both tiger and leopard recordings here:

(in response to a tiger growl)

(elephants audibly vocalizing at a leopard recording!)

ResearchBlogging.orgThuppil, V., & Coss, D. (2013). Wild Asian elephants distinguish aggressive tiger and leopard growls according to perceived danger Biology Letters, 9 (5) DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0518

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