Sunday, October 21, 2007

Trifecta of Neat Stuff Part II: An article

The BBC reports new discoveries in the field of animal research:

The study found African elephants reacted with fear when they detected the scent of garments previously worn by men of the Maasai tribe.

Maasai men are known to demonstrate their virility by spearing elephants... The elephants also responded aggressively to red clothing, which is characteristic of traditional Maasai dress.

However, the elephants showed much milder reaction to clothing previously worn by the Kamba people, agriculturalists who pose little threat.

The psychologists said they had expected to find elephants might be able to distinguish among different human groups according to the level of risk they posed.

They said: "We were not disappointed. In fact, we think that this is the first time that it has been experimentally shown that any animal can categorise a single species of potential predator into subclasses based on such subtle cues."

It's interesting that the article is focusing on the Massai as hunters, as Westerners have long held up the Massai as the quintessential "noble savage." I don't think the article or the study are playing into that, but it catches my eye to see them being used in the role of "fearsome hunter."

Another thing I found striking: the elephants will run from any red clothing, but they'll run farther and faster from red clothing that also carries the odor of Massai men than they will from red clothing that has been worn by members of another African group.

How do the elephants get this knowledge? Is it all experiential, or do they pass it down as they do knowledge about things like where mineral deposits that they need to acquire vitamins are?

And I had no idea that different ethnic groups had detectably different smells. Diet, I assume? And other lifestyle factors. I didn't realize the divides in lifestyle were still large enough to produce that effect, although it makes sense, particularly in the context of something like one group's continued tradition of hunting elephants.

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