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.

Two female elephants communicating and reassuring each other through touch. Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

 

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.

Two female elephants using their trunks to ’smell‘ the air. Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

 

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.

Male elephant demonstrating the typical ‚ears flared , heads up‘ aggressive posture. Photograph: 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.

Two male elephants greet each other, note the relaxed body language. Photograph: Vikram Nanjappa

 

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.