Monday, September 24, 2012

Having a chat from 10km away? Not a problem for an elephant.

Elephants are extremely social and as such spend a lot of time communicating with one another, much like we humans do as a social species. Human communication is mainly verbal although we also use gestures and this very modern thing of writing down our messages to others, even sending them across the world. 

Elephants may not be able to email or skype across the world (although the YouTube clip below suggests it won’t be long!) but their complexity in communication is quite astounding. Not only do they use a variety of vocalizations, but they also convey information through gestures, touch, chemicals and even seismic vibrations. This time I will focus on how they communicate over long distances.

Elephants produce an array of vocalizations with different meanings depending on the context. While elephants can be extremely loud, perhaps the most interesting sounds are the very low frequency rumbles that are below the range of human hearing. These low sounds travel further, allowing elephants to communicate over distances of a number of miles. This YouTube clip is an example of one of these rumbles; it’s barely audible to us so listen carefully.

Incredibly, these sounds travel seismically as well as acoustically. It’s not understood exactly how they do it yet but elephants do use this seismic energy to receive and deliver information. This long distance communication often results in mass coordination in the movements of many elephant groups so that they converge in one place or move parallel to each other, but a few miles apart. Before the discovery of these infrasonic calls this incredible coordination was a total mystery to scientists who could not understand how elephants suddenly converged in a place from huge distances, without producing an audible vocalization. 

For a far-ranging, but social, animal like an elephant long distance communication is vital. As an elephant you need to know where your family or closely bonded companions are, whether other groups have found water or food and males need to know where to find that rare resource of females that are ready to mate. So it’s not surprising that they rely on more than vocalizations to achieve all this. Elephants have been found to use chemicals and hormones to communicate. By taking some urine into their trunk and transferring it to an organ called the vomeronasal organ above the roof of their mouth they can find out which elephant it came from and what reproductive state they are in by sensing chemicals. Elephants can in fact discriminate between over 100 individuals based on their urine alone. We might be able to use facebook but we sure can’t tell our friends apart from the taste of their pee!   

Elephants are similar to us in that they have complex social relationships and these relationships can continue over huge distances. I suspect there’s a lot more to discover about the long distance coordination and communication shown by elephants that will prove them to be even better adapted to this social structure than we currently realise. Next time I’ll give a brief overview of how they communicate at close range so keep an eye out for part 2!

by Rachel Dale

No comments:

Post a Comment