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Earth sciences

Elephants turn to seismic communication

08 Jun 2004 Isabelle Dumé

It is well known that elephants “speak” to each other but they might also communicate through seismic waves according to geophysicists. Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, Roland Günther and Simon Klemperer at Stanford University have shown that elephants can produce low-frequency waves that are capable of travelling more than two kilometres through the ground (Geophysical Research Letters 31 L11602). Seismic communication is used by a variety of animals including arthropods, amphibians and small rodents.

Listening to vibrations

Elephants communicate primarily through sounds or vocalisations known as “rumbles”. These rumbles have fundamental frequencies in the infrasonic range below 30 Hertz, which means that they cannot be heard by humans, although the harmonics of the fundamental frequency are audible. The Stanford team has shown that these rumbles can also act as a source of Rayleigh waves that can travel through the ground.

Following on from previous work by O’Connell-Rodwell, the Stanford geophysicists studied the propagation of Rayleigh waves produced by three trained African elephants using a line of 57 geophones that began just outside the elephant enclosure and extended out to about 175 metres. They also used three microphones to measure acoustic signals in the air. Using computer models, the scientists estimated that the seismic signals produced by the elephants could travel distances up to about 2.2 kilometres through the ground, compared with only 1-2 kilometres for through the air.

“It is possible that elephants use ground waves to communicate during times when acoustic communication is not ideal, as well as over short distances to supplement acoustic communication,” Günther told PhysicsWeb.

O’Connell-Rodwell and colleagues believe that elephants sense the underground vibrations through special receptors in their feet and trunks. The team is now studying elephants at Oakland Zoo in California and in the Etosha National Park in Namibia.

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