elephant communication occurs at frequencies too low for people
Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, Anne
Savage studies elephant communication in a carefully crafted
replica of an African ecosystem. Using microphones to record vocalizations
too low for human ears to discern, Savage is categorizing the calls
and matching them with potential meaning. In "Elephant Rumbles,"
she tells Alan, "it seems like it's been a very quiet day, then
we'll come back into the lab and find out they've been chatting
up a storm."
After long hours logging behavior and matching it to the vocalizations,
Savage has made at least two discoveries that illuminate the lives
of elephants. First, elephants chatter more to strangers than to
friends. Second, females rumble more when they are ready to mate
- about 21 days prior to ovulation, which happens just once every
four years. This suggests to Savage that the females are announcing
their impending fertility to males, who then have three weeks to
sort out mating rights amongst themselves.
far away can elephants communicate? That's what Stanford researcher
Caitlin O'Connell is investigating.
Her work with wild herds in Etosha National Park in Namibia suggests
that in theory, elephants' infrasonic rumbles could set up seismic
tremors in the ground that travel up to 30 or 40 miles. But whether
or not the elephants can detect these tremors or interpret them
as meaningful communication remains unknown.
trains a domestic elephant to test her ability to hear through
the Oakland Zoo in California, O'Connell has set up an experiment
to determine just that. O'Connell has trained an elephant named
Donna to raise her foot at the sound of a rumble. Now, using a ground-shaking
machine that vibrates in the same range as the elephant rumbles,
O'Connell tries to figure out if Donna will respond to the seismic
tremors of a rumble the same way.
sits with the researchers about 100 feet away from Donna as the
experiment begins. At first, it seems as though Donna does raise
a foot when she feels the seismic tremor. But later, Donna also
raises a foot in the absence of such a signal. Is she picking up
on cues from her trainers? It's not yet clear, but with more patient
researchers like Savage and O'Connell on the case, it probably won't
be long before we have more answers. As Savage tells Alan, "Trying
to figure out what all of it means is very, very exciting."
more on this topic, see the web feature:
Seeing With Our Ears