Caller ID in the wild: Elephants hear underground

- By Tracie White

In the vast expanse of African grasslands, wild herds of migrating elephants have learned to communicate with each other by listening with their feet to vibrations in the ground. Now a School of Medicine researcher has found their seismic communication system is so sophisticated the elephants have their own version of 'caller ID.'

'It's a much richer communication system than we thought,' said Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, PhD, an ecologist who discovered the underground communication system 14 years ago while observing wild elephants in northern Namibia.

O'Connell-Rodwell has written about this journey of scientific discovery in her book, The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, published in March (Free Press, division of Simon & Schuster). Her newest study, which measures the ability of elephants to recognize whether an underground message is delivered by a familiar or unfamiliar source, will be published in August in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

'I see this is going to be a lifetime journey,' said O'Connell-Rodwell, a research associate in the otolaryngology department. She hopes to draw analogies between humans and elephants in research conducted with people and hearing implants at Stanford because the hearing-impaired population is 'much better at feeling vibrations,' she said.

Credit: Max Salomon elephant oconnell

Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell discovered how elephants listen with their feet to underground vibrations by watching them in Namibia.

O'Connell-Rodwell's saga of how she discovered this secret sense of elephants began with a simple observation. While hunkered down in a bunker observing family herds of elephants next to a favorite watering hole at Etoshia National Park in Namibia in 1992, she noticed a curious behavior. Suddenly the entire herd would freeze, ears flattened to their heads. Each enormous beast would lean forward up on tiptoes, sometimes raising one foot in the air.

'When elephants are listening with their ears, they have huge, extended ears,' O'Connell-Rodwell said. But in this instance, the ears remained flat. She knew about the process of listening through limbs, a phenomenon known as 'seismic communication' in insects, having spent endless hours in a small soundproof chamber recording the seismic love songs of Hawaiian planthoppers when she worked on a master's degree in entomology. O'Connell-Rodwell became convinced the elephants were listening to seismic vibrations through the earth, but it's taken her years of painstaking scientific research to convince the rest of the world.

'It took a long time for this idea to gain momentum,' said O'Connell-Rodwell, who also works with her husband Tim Rodwell in San Diego to co-direct a nonprofit conservation organization, Utopia Scientific ( 'People weren't thinking that larger mammals could do this. We've had to prove ourselves each step of the way.'

Past studies by O'Connell-Rodwell and colleagues have shown that when African elephants stomp and rumble as a predator approaches, other distant elephants can get the news by feeling the ground ripple through their feet or trunk. This may have the direct or indirect effect of alerting other elephants of potential predators and threats. Other seismic messages such as distant thunder rumblings could also let elephants know when and where the rains will arrive, explaining their uncanny ability to move hundreds of kilometers in the right direction to get to the green growth that the rains will bring.

elephant book

Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell's book describes her studies of how elephants listen to underground vibrations.

The new study suggests that not only can the elephants receive and interpret underground calls, but they can distinguish between specific callers.

Working with senior author Sunil Puria, PhD, consulting associate professor of mechanical engineering, O'Connell-Rodwell and colleagues converted previously recorded warning calls from two different elephant herds into seismic vibrations and sent them to a herd of elephants at the watering hole at Etosha National Park. The recorded alarm calls were very similar, both low-frequency vocalizations that lions were approaching, but one was sent by elephants living in the same park as the study group in Etosha, and the other taken from elephants living far away in Kenya.

'The elephants at the watering hole responded only to the familiar calls,' O'Connell-Rodwell said. 'They would freeze, clump into tighter groups, leave the watering hole earlier. I expected some response to the unfamiliar calls, but they didn't appear to care about it at all.

'I wasn't expecting their ability to be that subtle,' she said. 'Maybe I underestimated it.'

O'Connell-Rodwell has spent most of her summer months for the past 14 years hidden in the same dank bunker watching the same group of migrating elephants at the watering hole in Etosha National Park. Over the years, she's been stalked by lions who have climbed up on the bumper of her pick-up truck when she was sleeping in the back and, once, nearly climbed into her bunker. Still, she wrote about her bunker and her herd of elephants with appreciation and awe.

'The bunker is wonderful,' said O'Connell-Rodwell, who camped out alone for weeks at a time observing the elephants' behavior. She loved 'listening to the night sounds, the lions roaring, the hyenas calling,' she said.

Her wonder at these enormous beasts of Africa filled her book. She wrote about the 'tiptoeing elephants' with their 'vaudeville eyelashes almost comical in length' and 'giant stethoscope feet' with love and admiration.

'We still have this very special window into their society but I don't know for how much longer,' O'Connell-Rodwell said. 'I grew to understand the elephant's society. How they treat each other. How they care for each other. I watched their relationships.'

She grew to know which of the elephant bulls were the bullies, which the gentle giants. She even named them. One bull with a long, scraggly, gray tail, dubbed 'Willy Nelson,' is 'a little bit of an outsider, but well-respected,' she said. One of the matriarchs dubbed 'Margaret Thatcher' is 'somewhat of a tyrant but takes care of her own.'

O'Connell-Rodwell's passion for elephants began all those years ago, with an initial serendipitous job offer. During a nine-month trip to Africa with her husband, she got a job helping Namibian farmers find ways to scare away rampaging wild elephants that could devour a year's worth of crops in one day. She's still working on new ideas as the elephants continually adapt to methods like car alarms or underground warnings.

'They're just too freakin' smart,' she said.

She's heading back to Africa again on June 8 for two months of elephant observation.

O'Connell-Rodwell works with principal investigator Robert Jackler, MD, the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor in Otorhinolaryngology and and chair of otolaryngology. She has received funding for her elephant studies from the National Geographic Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Science Foundation, the Seaver Institute, TRAFFIC International and several Stanford University grants including a Bio-X award with co-principal investigators Simon Klemperer, PhD, professor of geophysics, and Robert Sapolsky, PhD, the John A. and Cynthis Fry Gunn Professor and professor of neurology and neurological sciences.

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