Elephants Are Not Ethnic-Blind

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Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I have had this experience. I’ve traveled literally hundreds of kilometers by foot together with Efe (Pygmy) hunters in the Ituri Forest. We see very few animals. The few we do see are attacked, killed, and eaten. Well, a lot of them actually get away, but that is the idea.

But I’ve also traveled many kilometers (not as many) alone. I would see many animals, and yes, they would run (or climb or whatever) away, but not as desperately. They knew I was not really one of the hunters, although I tried my best to look tough and hungry.


Of course, when I use the word “animal” here I mean mammals and birds mainly. Insects, not so much.

I’ve had similar experiences elsewhere in Africa as well, where what we humans would call “ethnicity” was obviously being picked up by mammals.

Well, now there is some research to back this up:

Some species distinguish several species of predator, giving differentiated warning calls and escape reactions; here, we explore an animal’s classification of subgroups within a species. We show that elephants distinguish at least two Kenyan ethnic groups and can identify them by olfactory and color cues independently. In the Amboseli ecosystem, Kenya, young Maasai men demonstrate virility by spearing elephants (Loxodonta africana), but Kamba agriculturalists pose little threat. Elephants showed greater fear when they detected the scent of garments previously worn by Maasai than by Kamba men, and they reacted aggressively to the color associated with Maasai. Elephants are therefore able to classify members of a single species into subgroups that pose different degrees of danger.

Here is a picture of elephants upset by exposure to Maasai clothing:


And here’s the data to back it up:


This research demonstrates that elephants discriminate both using olfaction and vision, with these two sources of information processed separately and accurately, to assess risk from different sorts of people. Considering the amount of energy one must spend … and time one must waste .. running away from threats, this does indeed make a lot of sense.

BATES, L. A., SAYIALEL, K. N., NJIRAINI, N. W., MOSS, C. J., POOLE, J. H. & BYRNE, R.W. (2007): Elephants Classify Human Ethnic Groups by Odor and Garment Color.. Curr Biol, , .

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5 thoughts on “Elephants Are Not Ethnic-Blind

  1. Neato! I think we’re blind to a lot of animal discrimination. For example, researches studying prairie-dogs’ whistles on oscilloscpe noticed something unexpected, which they could not detect by ear: the prairie dogs had different whistles for different sexes, different people, and sometimes even different clothing. Whether dhose differences were meaningful to other prairie dogs or just a result of, say, generalized stress or alarm, I don’t know.

  2. Interesting post!I wonder if dogs do that too. My dog responds differently to the teenage African American boys who come to door selling candy bars vs. the girl scouts, who are usually white.

  3. I used to have a black-and-tan Doberman pinscher, Boomer, who grew up in an all-white community in Appalachia. We later moved to southern California.When he saw his first black, he got wildly excited and wagged his whole body, grinning broadly as he approached the man. The guy read the signals right, and while puzzled by the behavior accepted the dog’s extreme friendliness toward him. The man kneeled and hugged the dog, and the dog rubbed his face on the guy.I realized that Boomer had finally seen a human with what he thought was nice coloring. His kind of guy!

  4. I think that’s true of a lot of dogs…Years ago a landlord’s dog, K, was teased by the kids in the apartment next door. For the rest of its life it always barked at anyone that had the same skin tone as those kids.

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