148. The Silent Signals

Elephants in random groups, separated by several miles, manage to move in perfect coordination toward the same destination. How do large groups of elephants coordinate their movements so well, with apparently no means of communication?

A male elephant always finds a female no matter how far away she is! How does he do it? These questions have been puzzling the researchers for a long time.

In 1985, Katherine Payne, a researcher at Cornell University in New York, was watching a group of elephants in a zoo. She could feel a spasmodic throbbing in the air–similar to the one created by a distant thunder. This coincided perfectly, with the fluttering on one of the elephant’s fore head, right between its eyes!

Payne and her colleagues started investigating this discovery with sophisticated recording equipments. As expected by them, the throbbing was created by sounds below the range of human hearing, but it could be recorded on a tape.

Human ears can hear only 20 to 20,000 cycles per second. Frequencies below and above this range will not be audible for us. A dog whistle may appear silent to us but a dog can hear it very well and respond.

Using this low frequency, the elephants are able to communicate through concrete walls and across several miles. This ability will be very useful to them in wilderness than in captivity.

The audible noises made by the elephants like trumpeting, rumbling and growling would not travel very far. The sound will be absorbed by the trees, grass and shrubs. But the low frequency can travel much longer distances than the high frequencies.

Elephants are credited with a keen sense of hearing. A trained elephant can distinguish between 27 different commands. An elephant can recognize subtle musical vibrations too.

Now the mystery has been solved! The acute hearing ability of the elephants is the key factor that helps to coordinate the scattered groups and synchronize their activities.

Visalakshi Ramani


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