Elephants Communicate, but We Can't Hearby Kool Cat KC on 03/23/15
A group is getting together at the lake nearby, and you want to tell your friends. But they are miles away. You phone or text, right? But what if you are an elephant?
How will an elephant communicate with other members of its herd? A human being cannot communicate without technology over miles and miles, but an elephant can. And the funny thing is that even if we humans were standing next to the elephant who is “calling,” we wouldn’t be able to hear it. Elephants rumble at a very low frequency. It is a frequency which humans can’t hear. We might be able to feel the air vibrating if we concentrate very hard, but the frequency in which elephants communicate over long distances is very, very low. It’s outside our range. It’s outside most animal’s range.
Elephants have big heads and because they have these big heads, they can have really long vocal folds, or vocal chords. Long vocal folds can vibrate quickly, if the elephants shorten them by using the muscles in their throat. They do this when they trumpet. The sound is high pitched, high frequency. The folds can vibrate slowly if they are not shortened. When the folds vibrate slowly, like when elephants rumble, the sound will be low pitched, low frequency. Scientists have proven that when one elephant rumbles, other elephants miles away respond and react. They can communicate over at least 4 kilometers, probably even over 10 km, which is a little over six miles.
Have you seen lightning and counted how many seconds it takes for the sound of the thunder clap to reach you? It’s supposed to tell you how far away the lightning strike was—five seconds for each mile of distance. Thunder rumbles at a low frequency and we hear it for miles. Elephants rumble at an even lower frequency, can you imagine how far they can hear each other?
Liz Rowland is a scientist who studies elephant communication to try to help the elephants be safe from poachers. Liz is a scientist for the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University. The folks at the Elephant Listening Project figured out that elephants communicated in the really low frequency range by making recordings and speeding them up to frequencies humans can hear.
Now Liz and her co-workers have placed sound recording units in forest clearings where elephants get together. Many times these are places elephants visit to get mineral water. They use a spectrograph to turn sound into a picture. In the pictures they count the number of elephant calls and develop a database and graphs that tell them where the elephants are each day, what they do from season to season.
The reason for recording and analyzing the calls is that some elephants live deep in the African forests, and scientists don’t know a lot about them. When they know, from the recordings, where elephants meet, those areas can be protected from logging and from human disturbances. The scientists at the Elephant Listening Project have developed a way to figure out how many animals are at a particular location based on the number of calls recorded.
Recordings also allow scientists to keep track of poachers who kill elephants for the ivory in their tusks. The sound recording equipment has a gun shot detection feature which can be used to identify where shots were fired. Although it may be too late for that elephant, it may be possible to send patrols to catch the poachers and stop them from killing again.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if scientists were also able to tell which animal was making the call? They can’t tell just yet, but Liz and the other scientists can tell an older elephants (lower rumbles) from a younger one (higher rumbles). They have been able to determine that elephants recognize each other’s calls. Elephants can tell family members from non-family.
Other research that Liz and other scientists have done shows that elephants live in small family units—a mother an two or three young ones. They separate when daughters have their own families, but then they communicate and get together at gathering places. When they get together again, sisters stroke each other with their trunks, are they smelling each other? They are compassionate. They feel sorry for other family members and are tender toward them.
They are very sad when they lose a member of their group.
Liz works in a lab part of the time, but she also visits Africa to study the elephants. Isn’t that a job that you might want to have?