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The Secret Lives of Elephants

An important conversation is taking place below the range of human hearing

My first close encounter of the pachydermic kind happened at the edge of a twisty road in the mountains of northwestern Burma, where I was traveling with the wildlife photographer Karl Ammann. Our underpowered, overloaded car had been laboring uphill for hours when we heard someone shout, “The elephants!”

We pulled over at a roadside hamlet where onlookers milled around a small forest of gray-skinned legs and tails and trunks and torsos quietly gathered and swaying. These were elephants who had been put to work transporting heavy loads of wood for the Burmese logging industry, and they were well acquainted with people and their ways. After a while, one of them plodded toward us. Karl got a tangerine out of his pack. “A gift,” he said with some eagerness. He held it out first in front of the creature’s eye and then within reach of her trunk.

He waited, and then tossed it onto the patch of road in front of her. Her trunk curled, rose and arched, and lowered its tip until it hovered right above the tangerine. She sniffed, vacuuming up a trunkload of scent molecules. She sniffed a second time. Then, silently, she curled her trunk up again. She shifted slightly, raised a foot, and brought it down slowly but decisively onto the fruit, which splattered on the pavement. She sniffed once again, then showed no further interest, as if some fake person had just offered her fake food.

The incident would emblemize so much of my later experience with elephants. Indeed, throughout my time in Burma, and even later, as Karl and I traveled into East and Central Africa, observing and photographing the subjects you see in these pages, my sense of what I came to call “elephant otherness” only grew stronger. All species are alien to one another, you may say. We can only imagine the mental lives of dogs or apes, for example. But dogs will pay attention and let you know what they’re feeling or what they want with a growl or whimper, a twist of the head, a wag of the tail. Apes will look you in the eye, and, as with people, their faces provide a window into their minds. Elephants are not like that. They are not obsequiously communicative in the manner of dogs. Their faces, in contrast with those of primates, tend to be blandly immobile.

After my travels with Karl, I came home to begin a journey of a different kind, into the realm of scientists who have studied elephants. These men and women, too, have found the animals almost impenetrably mysterious. But in the past several decades, they have begun to shed light on elephants’ social behavior. It turns out that, however indifferently they might treat a gift offered by a human, elephants are anything but aloof among themselves.

In my encounters with elephants, it was their quietude I found most arresting. While elephants sometimes do enact the script preferred by Hollywood, trumpeting or roaring or screaming vigorously, they’re often just the opposite—so quiet, and so slow moving, as to seem almost ethereal.

Yet that quietude can be an illusion. In Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, Katy Payne, a Cornell University acoustic biologist, describes how she made this discovery. It all began in May of 1984, when she paid a visit to the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, spending several days with three adult female elephants and their three young offspring. The visit was personal, not scientific, something done on a whim, but she’d always been interested in elephants. And she was delighted when the zoo’s director let her get close to them. She stroked foreheads. Ran her hands down the cascading wrinkles of a trunk. Looked into the murky well of an eye so abstractly large she could never follow its gaze.

Then on her way home to Ithaca, New York, buckled into a transcontinental jet with her ears and neck still itching from the insinuating detritus of the elephant house, she sat back contently and reflected on her experiences. After a while, she became aware of the plane’s rumbling and a peculiar pulsation in the air. She recalled a similar feeling she had had among the elephants—“a faint throbbing, or thrilling, or shuddering.” It was, she thought, “like the feeling of thunder but there’d been no thunder. There had been no loud sound at all, just throbbing and then nothing.”

She was perplexed. What was that sensation? What did it mean? Her immediate association was a memory of listening, when she was thirteen years old, to the great pipe organ in the Sage Chapel of Cornell University. When the organ had sounded in its lowest register, the air around her had pulsated. The deeper the tone, the less audible it had become, and the pulsations had slowed down. Eventually the music had entered the realm her future scientific training would define as infrasound—vibrations too low and slow for human hearing but strong enough to carry information for many miles, even passing through rocks, trees, and other supposed barriers.

“Is that what I was feeling as I sat beside the elephant cage?” Payne wondered. “Sound too low for me to hear, yet so powerful it caused the air to throb? Were the elephants calling for each other in infrasound?” Elephants often rumble deeply, a habit that was once considered mere borborygmi—or stomach growling—and was later recognized as part of their normal vocalization repertoire. But did those heard rumbles merge into a secret world of unheard communications?

Four months later, she returned to the zoo, this time accompanied by two old friends, the behavioral biologist Bill Langbauer and the anthropologist and author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She also brought a tape recorder capable of registering infrasound. Over the next week, she and her companions recorded the auditory environment of the elephant house while taking notes on the elephants’ behavior. Both Payne and Thomas occasionally felt the peculiar throbbing in the air. Once, it occurred when an elephant named Rosy had walked to the end of the large exhibition hall to stand by herself, her face turned to a concrete wall. Thomas, who thought to look on the other side of the wall, saw Tunga, a large male. The heads of the two elephants were three feet apart, separated only by a thick expanse of concrete.

Payne later played back the audiotape of the incident fast, to raise the sound frequencies. At ten times their original speed, the infrasonic traces became audible, “a little like the mooing of cows,” she writes. “The loudest calls coincided with a period when Liz [Thomas] and I had both sensed throbbing. Two animals had been carrying on an extensive and animated conversation below the range of human hearing. I suppose that they were Rosy and Tunga, calling to each other through the wall.”

The notion might have seemed bizarre, but it made perfect sense to other scientists who had studied elephants. For years they had analyzed the many audible sounds elephants make, finding communications that were interesting, possibly sophisticated, but still inadequate to explain certain observations. Especially baffling had been the way groups of elephants were observed to synchronize their activities while widely separated. In Zimbabwe, for example, the wildlife biologist Rowan Martin had radio-tracked female elephants from different families and noted that they would stay within a few kilometers of one another, even while changing directions and covering substantial territory. They moved in a coordinated fashion, almost as if they were communicating over great distances with . . . what? No one could recall any unusual vocalizations. The separated groups were not in visual contact. Communication by scent was conceivable, but the coordination occurred even when the wind direction was unfavorable. The zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton once remarked, “We didn’t mention ESP openly, but . . . some of us were ready to entertain the idea that these animals were sending bloody mind waves to each other.”

In March 1985, Payne packed her bags for a research camp in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, to investigate whether she was on the right track with her theory about elephant communication. And indeed she ended up recording infrasonic calls there that could have traveled kilometers.

But how many kilometers? Finding out was complicated, because it depended on more than just the intensity and the frequency level of the sound. There were also the atmospheric conditions to consider, the continual shifting between hot and cool, still and turbulent air. Such changes would surely affect the transmission of calls through the air—but how? Moreover, even if the elephants could broadcast their calls over long distances, could other elephants hear them?

And above all, were the calls meaningful? Researchers had analyzed calls in the audible range and established a tentative elephant lexicon. There were calls for help, usually made by calves: rumbles, cries, and screams indicating that they were in distress, lost, or hungry. There were greeting calls, including bellows, roars, rumbles, screams, and trumpets. Several other calls punctuated the full sequence of mating. Payne suspected that many calls produced at the audible level would have analogs on the infrasonic level. Yet how could anyone prove it? Even if a number of males arrived from all directions soon after a female had produced an infrasonic estrous call, for instance, couldn’t it be just coincidence? Or mightn’t the males have followed some clue other than sound—say, the ever-enticing tendrils of scent?

Bill Langbauer designed an experiment to help answer these questions. It involved a giant battery-powered loudspeaker capable of accurately reproducing elephant sounds and infrasounds; this speaker would be carried around in a vehicle so that realistic elephant calls could be produced at various distances from a fixed elephant meeting place, such as a watering hole. Then the behavior of the elephants coming to the meeting place would be recorded from a five-meter-high observation platform outfitted with video and audio equipment.

In 1987, Payne and Langbauer, together with several other scientists, journeyed to Etosha, a large national park in Namibia, to conduct the research. Silent Thunder describes how in one of their trials two bull elephants, the very large Mohammed and the smaller, younger Hannibal, were drinking and splashing and mucking about at a watering hole when they simultaneously lifted their heads. The time was 4:45:02, according to the automatic timer on the video camera. “Out went four ears, spread, lifted, and stiffened. Two bodies froze, all motion stopped. Very slowly Mohammed swung his head around to the left, and slowly back to center, and around to the right, as if scanning half the world for sound. Very slowly Hannibal did the same.” After that, both turned slowly until they were facing due north. Then they set off, ignoring the usual animal trail. They continued north until they disappeared into some trees at 4:56:00.

Later, Payne and her associates, who had been on the observation platform near the watering hole, learned what their colleagues with the mobile loudspeaker had done. After setting up the speaker exactly one kilometer due north of the watering hole, they had broadcast a previously recorded infrasonic estrous call at 104 decibels. It had started at 4:45:00, two seconds before the platform team had noted listening behavior among the bull elephants. It had ended forty seconds later, at 4:45:40, ten seconds before Mohammed and Hannibal stopped their directional scanning, turned, and took off for the north. The mobile team noted that the pair of elephants had reached the giant speaker thirty minutes later and kept on going, apparently still looking for the interesting female who had made the call.

With data from sixty trials in total, the experiment confirmed that the elephants of Etosha were capable of responding to one another’s calls from as far away as 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), which meant that their communications could typically cover an area of at least 50 square kilometers (19 square miles). In a subsequent analysis, a team of meteorologists established that interactions between ground and air heat from dusk to dawn would expand those ranges. This would theoretically enable elephants to communicate with one another from a distance of about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), covering an area of some 300 square kilometers (115 square miles).

And finally, as more recent research has shown, elephants listen to infrasonic calls not only with their ears, which catch vibrations moving through the air, but also with the bottoms of their feet. The dense, fatty pads there contain specialized receptor nodes known as Pacinian corpuscles that can pick up vibratory information traveling as seismic waves in the ground. The implication is that the animals’ auditory field may be larger than Payne ever imagined, since low-frequency vibrations can travel even greater distances through the earth than through air.

But if elephants’ auditory connections with one another are remarkable, their underlying emotional connections may be even more so. In her book Elephant Memories, Cynthia Moss, an elephant researcher, describes a typically dramatic greeting ceremony between two closely associated families. It was an excited moment of reunion after a time of separation between one family led by a matriarch with distinctively upcurved tusks and a second family led by a matriarch with a definitively torn ear:

When they were about fifty yards from this group, the upcurved female rumbled—a different, higher-pitched, and louder rumble. . . . The members [of the second family] raised their heads, lifted and spread their ears, and produced loud, throaty rumbles. At the same time the elephants in both groups began to secrete a clear liquid from the temporal glands on both sides of their faces. More answering rumbles came . . . and then both [families] started striking rapidly toward each other. When they were twenty yards apart they broke into a run and came together in a turmoil of ear-flapping, rumbling, screaming, trumpeting, clicking of tusks together, entwining of trunks, spinning and backing, and urinating and defecating. Their temporal gland secretions were streaming down their faces and they reached their trunks toward each other’s glands. The upcurved female pushed through the milling calves and went straight to a large female with a big tear out of her right ear. They lifted their heads together and clicked tusks while entwining their trunks and rumbling deeply.

We know, too, that elephants’ attachment to members of their group survives the ultimate separation—death—in ways that defy what we’ve come to expect of animals. “I have little doubt that when one of their number dies and the bonds of a lifetime are severed, elephants have a similar feeling to the one we call grief,” Iain Douglas-Hamilton writes. His colleague Harvey Croze, a biologist and veteran elephant watcher, tells of how he saw an aged matriarch die over the course of several hours one afternoon in the Serengeti. At first, she fell behind the rest of her family. The whole group waited for her, moved around her and placed their trunk tips into her mouth—a gesture of reassurance, perhaps—and then, as she toppled weakly, they gathered together and tried to keep her upright. At the end of the day, after she died, they all stayed around her corpse for several more hours.

Sometimes such tender ministrations will be followed by burial—as if that’s the final protection when all else has failed. Cynthia Moss reports that she once found the remains of a young female who had been sick for a long while. As it happened, the elephant’s family arrived on the scene at the same moment, so she stepped back and observed. She says the group became “tense” and “very quiet.” They moved in “nervously” and then “smelled and felt the carcass and began to kick at the ground around it, digging up the dirt and putting it on the body. A few . . . broke off branches and palm fronds and brought them back and placed them on the carcass.”

Moss also notes that elephants who discover the bones of other elephants invariably approach them with enormous solicitude and interest—even if those bones are old, completely dry, and sun-bleached. They first explore with their trunks, and sniff, and then very gradually, with seeming caution, they start touching the bones, picking them up and rolling them around with their trunks and rear feet. Of special interest are the skull and jawbone and tusks: “They run their trunk tips along the tusks and lower jaw and feel in all the crevices and hollows in the skull. I would guess they are trying to recognize the individual.” Moss adds that if they leave the site and return to find that the bones have been even slightly moved, they always carry them to some new place. “It is a haunting and touching sight, and I have no idea why they do it.”

Far more surprising than the tales of elephants caring for fellow elephants, however, are those of elephants defending injured and possibly dying individuals from a different species—including humans. The elephant researcher Joyce Poole relates the story of one elephant who, having broken the leg of a ranch worker by accident, carefully dragged him with her trunk and pushed him with her front feet until he was settled beneath a tree, where he could rest in the shade. The elephant then stood over him the rest of the day, through the night, and into the next morning, once chasing away a herd of buffalo. She regularly reached out to touch the man with her trunk. She seemed to realize that he was hurt and needed protection, and did not leave him until the ranch manager came along and scared her off with rifle shots.

Bernhard Grzimek, one of the pioneers in the movement to protect the Serengeti ecosystem as a national park, writes of a tourist who, hoping for a good photograph, foolishly moved too close to a large bull elephant, causing the animal’s self-protective instincts to kick in. The elephant charged and killed him. The rest of the party fled, but when they returned, they discovered the hapless man’s body buried beneath a pile of scattered vegetation.

Science may never fully reveal all the secrets or explain all the mysteries of an elephant’s magnificent, complex, and alien world. My sense of elephant otherness may never completely disappear, even as my admiration for these creatures, and for the scientists who study them, grows. But in the meantime, there’s art. Karl Ammann’s photographs form an imaginative collage that reveals the beauty in strangeness. Those enormous, slowly flapping ears look, when seen alone, like huge, dark beach umbrellas. Those great columnar legs appear, on their own, as tree trunks, the toenails parabolic and big as goose eggs, the foot bottoms as flat and circular as drumheads or dinner plates. And then there is that great lumpy skull, gray the color of old rock. It looks like a massive if strangely misshapen boulder with an eye in the middle. It’s an eye that—surrounded by a swamp’s edge of long, pale lashes and brightened by the sun into a rich amber—gives nothing away.

Adapted by arrangement with University of California Press from Elephant Reflections (2009), by Dale Peterson (text) and Karl Ammann (photos).

DALE PETERSON, a lecturer in the English Department, has written fifteen books, which have been translated into nine foreign languages. Two works, including his last one, Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man, have been named New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

  © 2009 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155