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How Elephants Listen … With Their Feet

Thousands of elephants roam Etosha National Park in Namibia, a nation in southwest Africa, taking turns at the park’s numerous watering holes. The elephants exchange information by emitting low-frequency sounds that travel dozens of miles under the ground on the savannah.

The sound waves come from the animals’ huge vocal chords, and distant elephants “hear” the signals with their highly sensitive feet. The sound waves spread out through the ground and air. By triangulating the two types of signals using both ears and feet, elephants can tune into the direction, distance and content of a message.

It’s called seismic communication, and thanks to the research of Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, we’re learning more about how it informs, protects, and builds elephant communities. An example from KQED’s Deep Look:

In a series of experiments first developed with the help of an elephant at the Oakland Zoo, O’Connell-Rodwell played typical calls on speakers buried in the ground to elephants at the watering hole at Mushara. She found that a predator alarm played on an above-ground speaker caused the herd to flee immediately. They responded quite differently, however, to the same call played underground. They closed ranks, but stayed put.

She concluded that the elephants could tell the difference between nearby and distant dangers from how they had received the information.

This fascinating episode of Deep Look tells the story behind the science: How Elephants Listen … With Their Feet.

Learn more about O’Connell-Rodwell’s work in the award-winning children’s book The Elephant Scientist.

Next, watch Elephant Intelligence. Plus: How to speak chimpanzee and Decoding the language of Prairie Dogs: America’s Meerkats.

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