Animals are just as frightened by elephants as they are by carnivorous predators, according to a new study.
The study, published in Biology Letters, finds that calls from the African elephant and leopards startle creatures like impala and wildebeest in equal amounts.
Elephants are herbivores and don’t predate on other animals, and the researchers believe the fear responses they provoke could still affect ecosystems.
The US, South African and Swazi team of researchers studied ungulates, including impala, wildebeest and nyala, in 3 game reserves across eastern Eswatini.
They set up 9 speakers and cameras connected to motion sensors in the reserves. When an animal set off a motion sensor, the camera started recording and the speaker played either an elephant, leopard or red-chested cuckoo call.
This gave the researchers 483 recordings of 10 different species of animal reacting to a call. The researchers analysed the videos for fear responses: whether the animals put their heads up or ran away.
“We revealed strong fear responses of ungulates to elephant vocalisations,” write the authors in their paper.
They found that animals’ reactions to elephant calls were similar to that of leopard calls. Animals were significantly less frightened by birdcalls.
The researchers suggest three possible reasons for the fear: competition for resources, aggressive behaviour of elephants, and “generalised neophobia”: fear of anything new.
Elephants are native to all the study areas, but there hasn’t been a permanent population of elephants in the area for more than 100 years, with only the occasional animal passing through.
Because of this, the researchers “expect that these responses reflect either innate responses [to elephants] or imperfect generalised responses based on other megaherbivores in this region”, like hippos.
The fear of elephants could have a “cascade effect” on ecosystem dynamics, the researchers believe.
“While the direct effects of elephants on ecosystem structure and function are increasingly understood, elephants may also have indirect effects on savanna ecosystems by generating changes in the behaviour of ungulates,” they write.
It also has implications for areas that have lost elephant populations.
“Our results suggest that in ecosystems where elephants have been lost, rewilding of may benefit from ungulates retaining their fear responses, as observed in our study,” write the researchers.
The research comes in the same week as a report was published in Current Biology revealing that mammals in the African savanna are most afraid of humans.