The American Physiological Society Press Release

press release logo

APS Contact: Donna Krupa

Email: dkrupa@the-aps.org

Phone: 301.634.7209

Twitter: @Phyziochick

APS Podcast Updates Research on Elephant Seismic Communication

BETHESDA, Md. (Sept.18, 2009) - Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell's insight that elephants "talk" and "listen" to vocalizations that they send through the ground grew from long hours of observation and experimentation, as well as her own in-depth knowledge of insects that communicate seismically.

In Episode 25 of the APS podcast, Life Lines, the Stanford University professor updates her research from the APS journal Physiology, explaining how elephant vocalizations travel through the ground for great distances, and how other elephants can understand them, just as they understand acoustic sound, which travels through the air. The study in Physiology can be found by clicking here or by following the full link at the end of the release.

Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell is the author of The Elephant's Secret Sense. You can see videos of some of the elephant communication experiments she describes in the podcast on her Utopia Scientific site. The links to the videos are on this page: http://utopiascientific.org/Research/mushara.html.

Discovers seismic communication

Early in her research, Dr. O'Connell-Rodwell noticed behavior that indicates elephants are listening to acoustic (airborne) sounds by putting their ears out and orienting toward the sound's source. 

At other times, she also noticed a more puzzling behavior: Several elephants would freeze simultaneously, sometimes in mid-stride, and would press their front feet into the ground. They might also roll a foot forward so that only their toes touched the ground. At other times, they would lift a front leg. The behavior reminded her of the behavior she saw in insects that communicate seismically.

She began a series of experiments that eventually found that:

  • Low-frequency elephant vocalizations, which are below the threshold of human hearing, travel through the ground in the same waveform as they do in the air. The ground vocalization can travel faster or more slowly than acoustic sound, depending on soil conditions, but has the potential of travelling further as there is no outer limit to how far sounds can travel through the earth.

  • When she played a recorded elephant vocalization through the ground only (not through the air), other elephants detected the vocalization.

  • Elephants understood the ground-borne vocalizations. For example, they responded appropriately to an alarm call from another elephant by assuming their defensive posture of bunching and freezing. They also responded only to alarm calls of elephants living in the area rather than those made from elephants elsewhere.

Further research revealed that there are two ways elephants "hear" sound waves traveling through the ground:

Somatosensory pathway. Elephants feel the sound wave through their feet and trunks using the somatosensory pathway. Their feet and trunks have a large number of pacinian corpuscles -- cells that detect vibrations. The cells help transmit these vibrations to the brain.

Bone conduction pathway. Elephants detect ground-borne sound waves through their toenails. The vibration travels up the bone and into the middle ear where it vibrates the middle ear bones, just as an acoustic sound would.

Elephants also have anatomical adaptations to help them "hear" these ground-borne vocalizations:

  • They have an enlarged malleus, a middle ear bone that plays an important role in hearing. Animals that communicate seismically often have an enlarged malleus as it also facilitates bone conducted detection of vibrations.

  • Elephants can close their middle ear canal, forming a closed acoustic tube which enhances bone conduction and blocks out acoustic sound, helping the elephant focus on the vibration pathway.

  • They have an acoustically designed foot, with a thick fat pad that perhaps helps in the transmission or conduction of vibrations.

You can find the podcast interview at http://lifelines.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=524100 and an article on the research in the journal Physiology:  http://physiologyonline.physiology.org/cgi/search?sortspec=relevance&author1=O%27Connell-Rodwell&fulltext=&pubdate_year=&volume=&firstpage.

For more information, please contact Donna Krupa at dkrup@the-aps.org.

Physiology is the study of how molecules, cells, tissues and organs function in health and disease. Established in 1887, the American Physiological Society (APS) was the first U.S. society in the biomedical sciences field. The Society represents more than 10,500 members and publishes 15 peer-reviewed journals with a worldwide readership.