Science: Elephants Calling Long-Distance

Article excerpt


Elephants have more mysterious powers than their mythical ability never to forget.

There are numerous stories of elephants appearing to sense events happening over impossible distances.

A big elephant cull, for instance, is said to upset and agitate other herds 50km away - too far to hear trumpet calls or pick up scent signals.

Elephants also have an uncanny gift for seeking out thunderstorms, where they know there will be water.

If a storm breaks in Angola, herds of elephants 150km away in Namibia will start to move north in search of the rain.

Even though the herds may be unable to see or hear each other, they will march in the same direction.

A small group of scientists now think they can explain this behaviour, and are conducting experiments aimed at proving their theory.

They believe elephants talk to each other through the ground, using their feet to detect seismic vibrations.

If the theory is correct, it would make elephants the only large terrestrial mammal known that communicates in this way.

The first clue came in 1992 when a student zoologist at the University of California in Davis, Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, noticed elephants in Namibia acting strangely. They would freeze, lean forwards and lift up one foot, New Scientist magazine reported.

The behaviour reminded O'Connell-Rodwell of the actions of insects when feeling for vibrations.

O'Connell-Rodwell discussed what she had seen with the head of her department, Lynette Hart, who decided to investigate further.

She recruited her brother, Byron Arnason, a geophysicist working for the oil industry who was an expert on seismic waves.

Together they carried out experiments at an elephant sanctuary in Texas which showed that low-frequency sounds made by the animals travelled much further through the ground than the air.

The calls could not be heard more than about 10km away, but their vibrations travelled around 16km through the ground.

Vibrations caused by "crashing around" as elephants do when they are nervous or afraid travelled up to 32km. …