Updated: Oct 20, 2018
The elephant: Majestic, intelligent, altruistic, herbivore, long-distance walker, playful, naughty, allo-mother, bull patriarch, female matriarch, formidable opponents in protection of calves, and memory masters! Humans recognize many of these qualities in themselves and others, thus, humans deeply love and cherish the world’s largest land mammal.
Now, lend me an ear and I’ll tell you a story. Or rather, lend me your foot, and I’ll tell you a story. Elephants have ginormous, charismatic, floppy ears so you won’t be surprised that they have exceptional hearing. In fact, they have enlarged bones in their ears that aid in their fanciful hearing abilities. Elephants have very large vocal cords, thus can produce mega-loud vocalizations. But did you know that elephants not only listen with their ears, moreover, they listen through their feet? Yes, their feet!
To explain this marvel, I’ll elaborate on elephant vocalization. Elephant vocalization may be heard from many miles away. The sounds they make range from roars, screams, trumpets, snorts, and rumbles. When elephants communicate with a low rumble, these communications may be picked up through vibrations in the feet. All elephants; the lone elephant bull, small groups of bulls, and family herds have the ability to pick up this seismic, underground communication . These seismic waves may be heard by other elephants up to twenty miles away.
As elephants pick up these vibrations through their feet they may interpret them as impending danger signals from another herd. Elephants also use their feet to very noisily stomp, speedily flap their ears, while hysterically screaming out flamboyant vocalizations to protect a baby elephant from hyena or lion. This stomping creates a seismic wave along the surface of the earth.
Elephant feet have differences from human feet. Elephants stand on their tippy-toes. They have a layer of fat on the bottom of their feet that look like a woman’s wedge shoe. This fat layer is how the elephants receive and conduct the seismic communication from other family herds miles away. See photo below. Note the wedge area of the foot. The fatty area of the wedge is ideal for picking up seismic communication.
Scientists have studied seismic communication phenomenon in Africa, India, and in the United States to study elephants. Scientists have used procedures of employing studies using video recording of acoustic calls of wild African elephants. Researchers used previously recorder danger calls, welcoming calls, and calls that emulate, “It’s time to get out of here!” The cows did react to these calls as hypothesized, even more so than the bulls.
Dr. Caitlin Rodham-O’Connell, elephant scientist, may be credited for all the information in seismic communication. I was privileged to assist her in her wild elephant research in Africa. I had the opportunity to be a part of the research team sending out calls; mating calls. For example, after the mating call is played, a bull in musth showed up about three minutes after the recording, to find the cow in estrus. He made a circle around our research camp, looking for the cow. Since it was only our videoed recording, disappointed, he left. Of course, we only played the mating call once as to repeat it would be cruel. There have been studies of playing rock music to see how an elephant would respond. With regard to playing an American rock song- there was no interest from any elephant.
A memory I have in assisting Caitlin I’ll never forget; It was sun-downer time and a three month calf got separated from one of the family herds at a watering hole. This separation was caused by a teenager bull, from another family herd, who was showing of his dominance, by rushing meters ahead of his herd to a watering hole where a family resided.
Because of his aggressive nature, the herd naturally was spooked, and, they all ran in separate directions. We expected mom to be pretty darn quick in returning for her calf, as this it what happens when separations occur. It was heart-wrenching to watch this little male calf to be so scared, and for so long; twenty minutes. Since mom didn’t come straight away, the calf was alone and very scared. The seasoned researchers had never seen this before.
A mom not returning immediately, is very, very usual. Dusk was setting in, and lions where hiding about 140 meters away from the watering with all eyes on baby bull. Without older, experienced, elephants to protect this little calf he was in real peril to soon become dinner for the lions. At last, the baby cow made the loudest trumpet cry for help. His trumped cry for help felt like a seismic boom, and made my core vibrate as never before. This cry underscores, that indeed, as mentioned earlier, elephants have very large vocal cords.
At last, mom and one of the teenager in the calf’s herd heard this, too. They came charging in from about 350 meters away. It took mom, and the family herd teenager about three minutes to come and retrieve the calf for family reunification. For me, and all the more seasoned researchers, the three minute wait, after the calves’ lurid trumpet seemed like hours. When we watched the family rescue team there was not a dry eye in our research camp. See my personal photo below.