From: Allison Winter, ENN
Published September 12, 2013 06:17 AM

Tigers vs. Leopards: Who are you more afraid of?

Besides the obvious stripes vs. spots, tigers and leopards are very similar — two top predatory cats that have the power and stealth to capture just about any prey. And if you were to find yourself face-to-face with one in the wild, the average person would probably be equally scared of both. But this is not necessarily the case for the other members of our animal kingdom. According to a new research study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Davis, Wild Asian elephants fear the tiger more, as the study shows that the elephants slinks quietly away at the sound of a growling tiger, but trumpet and growl before retreating from leopard growls.

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"We noticed that the elephants were more scared of tigers than of leopards," said Vivek Thuppil, who carried out the work with Richard Coss, professor of psychology at UC Davis, as part of his Ph.D. in animal behavior.

Thuppil and Coss studied the elephants' behavior in an effort to prevent conflicts between human farmers and elephant herds that raid their fields by night. It's the first study of nighttime antipredator behavior in elephants.

Crop raiding by elephants is a serious problem in India and around the world, Thuppil said. Farmers use drums, firecrackers and electrified fences to try to keep them out of their crops. 

While the forest itself is protected, human settlement increasingly has moved into the buffer areas surrounding the forest, which elephants pass through while foraging or visiting different patches of forest.

About 400 people a year are killed during these encounters, and some hundred elephants are killed through poisoning, electrocution or other means, according to an Indian government report.

The researchers set up equipment to play back leopard or tiger growls triggered when the elephants crossed infrared beams across paths leading to crop fields, and captured the events on video.

Leopards aren't known to prey on elephants, but tigers will sometimes attack a young elephant that becomes separated from the herd. This may instinctually play a role in the elephants' initial reactions.

Although their initial reactions were very different, the elephants ultimately retreated from growls of both cats.

However, playing sounds of the tiger may be useful in helping Indian farmers protect their crops from marauding elephants by scaring them away.

Thuppil explains, the elephants might be confused by the leopard growl. A real leopard would most likely retreat from a group of elephants. Still, there's probably no benefit to the elephants in risking an encounter with a leopard, even if it is not a known predator. "You don't want to mess with something with claws and teeth," Thuppil said.

The work was published September 11 in the journal Biology Letters.

See more at the UC Newsroom. 

Tiger image via Shutterstock.

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