Trunk Calls

Published on: 08/02/2019

 MG 0869

Photo title: Two female elephants communicating and reassuring each other through touch.


Photo Credits: Vikram Nanjappa

Remember the days when trunk calls were the only means of communication with your loved ones who lived far away? When, depending upon the telephone exchange rush, you had to wait somewhere from thirty minutes to four hours to connect to the person you wanted to talk with?


Well, unlike those trunk calls, the way the elephants communicate is much more advanced and efficient. They communicate in numerous ways. They communicate chemically using various secretions and an acute sense of smell, they communicate visually looking at the postures and displays and most fascinating of all, they communicate through touch. The way they communicate and grieve for their dead ones through touch is a topic for another day.


They also communicate through both high and low frequency sounds with the low frequency sounds being heard from almost two kilometres away. And this sound is detected not by their beautiful enormous ears but by sensing the sound waves propagating through the ground and these vibrations are detected by the somatosensory receptors that are present in the feet and the trunk. (O’Connell-Rodwell et al.: Seismic properties of Asian elephants, 2000)


To prove that the elephants were deciphering calls through the seismic vibrations (in the ground), the renowned elephant scientist, Dr.Caitlin O’Connell, conducted an experiment on the African Forest Elephants. She placed a speaker near a popular watering hole and played an alarm call that is given out by elephants when a predator is spotted in the vicinity. Immediately, the herd that was peacefully drinking water hurried away thinking the threat is nearby.


Next, she placed an instrument called ‘Shaker’ underground and transmitted the same alarm call. This device would only transmit low frequency sounds which the humans can’t register. The shaker was placed 30m away from the watering hole and a geophone along with a microphone was placed 10m away from the watering hole to register the vibrations transmitted.


The geophone would register the underground sound frequency level and the microphone would confirm that there is no signal travelling in the air. As soon as the shaker was activated, the herd froze and started bunching together indicating that they felt threatened and sometime after that, they left the watering hole.


Photo title: Two male elephants greet each other, note the relaxed body language


Photo Credits: Vikram Nanjappa

The key finding from this experiment was that although the herd took more time to recognize the call underground than the call from the speaker above ground, it still proves that they use an additional sense that we humans have considered redundant. Because the low frequency waves travel farther than the high frequency ones, the elephants could have interpreted the shaker call as a far away threat and reacted with less urgency.


Scientists have been researching the secret language of elephants in the hopes of one day publishing an exhaustive elephant language dictionary. It’s one of the most challenging ventures undertaken as the range of vocalization is enormous and you can’t exactly ask the elephant ‘what did you just say?’. The way it is done is by observing the behaviour right after the sound is made and classifying these sounds into distinct categories.

The elephant sounds have been broadly classified into calls made for group defence, showing sexual readiness, between mother and her calf, during conflict, for social integration and for play.

As a naturalist with Evolve Back, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to be working and living alongside these magnificent creatures and trying to understand their complex and exquisite world.


Male elephant demonstrating the typical ‘ears flared , heads up’ aggressive posture.


Photo Credits: Vikram Nanjappa

chaitrika kabini blog

Chaitrika Reddy

Just like her name, she's every bit unique. Driven by her passion for wildlife and natural history, this accountant gave up her very well-paid life of numbers to spend time with the wild creatures that resonate with her soul . Her quick wit and twinge of sarcasm will keep you on your toes. She is a natural at finding patterns in nature and is known for her never-quit attitude. She's so scared of sounding egoistic that she had her best friend write this for her. Her only goal in life is to meet Sir David Attenborough and talk to him about his favorite dinosaur, Quetzalcoatlus. She has been repeatedly told not to read so much or the couple of white hairs she has are going to multiply in number. She's the happiest when she is hiking in the back-country and listening to the sounds of nature. She has just started learning bouldering in the hopes of her upper body strength improving and to be able to reach the cliffs where eagles roost. If you come searching for her in her cabin and don't find her, it's a good bet that she is out observing a sleeping owl or going through animal poo or wondering why the indigenous tribe buried its people that way.


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