The Elephant Scientist by Caitlin OConnellIn the sprawling African scrub desert of Etosha National Park, they call her “the mother of all elephants.” Holding binoculars closely to her eyes, American scientist Caitlin O’Connell could not believe what she was seeing from these African elephants: as the mighty matriarch scanned the horizon, the other elephants followed suit, stopped mid-stride, and stood as still as statues. This observation would guide the scientist to a groundbreaking discovery about elephant communication: elephants actually listen with their limbs.
The Elephant's Warning System - Africa's Deadliest
Elephants can hear through their feet
Once a month, Caitlin O'Connell has a date with an elephant. The Stanford research associate lives in San Diego and the pachyderm resides in Oakland, but they don't let geography interfere with their relationship. It's a question of science. O'Connell has discovered that elephants can hear with their feet. They are specialists in seismic communication, relying upon sound waves that travel within the surface of the ground instead of through the air. She's been working with the animals since , when she went to Africa for nine months and stayed for 14 years. Donna, an Oakland Zoo resident, joined her wild counterparts as a research subject in
The elephants exchange information by emitting low-frequency sounds that travel dozens of miles under the ground on the savannah. The sound waves spread out through the ground and air. By triangulating the two types of signals using both ears and feet, elephants can tune into the direction, distance and content of a message. She found that a predator alarm played on an above-ground speaker caused the herd to flee immediately. They responded quite differently, however, to the same call played underground.
Elephants aren't bashful about speaking their minds. Anyone who has ever watched a National Geographic television special knows all about those long trumpeting blasts. Big animals, big sounds -- sounds meant mainly for other elephants' big ears, or so wildlife specialists long assumed. But a Stanford University scientist has discovered that elephants actually have two distinct ways of communicating: by ordinary soundwaves rippling through the air, and by vibrations transmitted through the ground to exquisitely sensitive elephant toes. The seismic waves are set in motion by the same "low-frequency vocalizations" that famously rumble across African savannas, said Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell.
Few sights in nature are as awesome as a 6-ton elephant guarding her baby from a hungry predator.
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