Pachyderms’ secret vocabulary explored

Here's looking at you.Elephants are renowned for their intelligence and long memories, but that they also frequently communicate with each other, using a sophisticated language largely undetectable to the human ear, has only recently been identified.

A team of scientists at the San Diego Zoo, led by acting Director of Behavioural Biology at San Diego’s Institute for Conservation Research Matt Anderson, used specially manufactured leather collars, fitted with microphones and global positioning systems, to track eight of the elephants in the zoo’s 1800-acre safari park.

After monitoring their ‘conversations’ for 24 hours a day over a 10-week period researchers not only found two-thirds of the sounds the elephants emitted were at frequencies too low for humans to hear, they also discovered their information exchange was much more complex than previously believed.

“What we have found is essentially a sort of secret vocabulary. It falls very low in the sound spectrum. Researchers have always thought that elephants were able to exchange a few simple words, but by looking at the structure of these rumbles we’re now finding that their vocabulary is actually much larger and more complex than people previously realised,” Anderson said.

When switched to fast-forward, the low frequency sounds were raised to higher frequency levels, enabling the scientists to hear, and begin to analyse, their meaning in the context of elephant behaviour, and where the animals were located according to their GPS.

While it was previously understood females rumble over comparatively long distances to attract a mate, Anderson’s study suggests the animals regularly communicate within close proximity with each other, both to establish a pecking order, and to just enjoy a chat. Their individual status within the herd also appears to be associated with how much noise they make.

“We were excited to learn of the hierarchy within the female herd and how they interact and intercede with one another. One of the most exciting things we discovered is pregnant females have a special kind of rumble call, which changes within that low frequency boundary that we can’t hear but they can, to announce to the rest of the herd that the baby’s coming. The animals react by changing their position and standing in a circle, all facing out. In a wild setting, where a calf can potentially be taken by predators, it will be in the middle of that circle, and protected,” he said.

Further analysis of the data is being undertaken to learn more about how elephants communicate.

Results of a related study, that also concerns elephant behaviour, were published in the March 7 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study, conducted in Thailand, found elephants will quickly learn to cooperate with each other in order to solve problems, and has concluded that like chimpanzees and dolphins, elephants are among the world’s most cognitively advanced animals.

The research team was led by Joshua Plotnik, who is both Thailand’s head of elephant research for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Saen, and a researcher at Cambridge University’s Department of Experimental Psychology.

The scientific team tested six pairs of elephants 40 times over two days in trials involving food rewards, and found that in at least eight of the final 10 trials, each pair successfully worked out the solution – an outcome that surprised the researchers.

Elephants’ advanced learning and problem-solving ability was a rarity in the animal kingdom according to Plotnik, who said that while other animals might engage in teamwork, they are probably “pre-programmed for it,” unlike elephants who seem to understand the full process.

“Elephants are socially complex. They help each other in distress. They seem in some ways emotionally attached to each other, so you would expect there would be some level of cooperation,” Plotnik said. He hopes his research will not only demonstrate that the mind skills of elephants and humans are very similar, but that it will also advance a greater understanding of elephant behaviour, and result in better solutions for resolving human-animal conflict.


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