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How Well Can Elephants Hear Distant Sounds?

Elephants communicate in a number of ways, using a variety of sounds. They snort, roar, trumpet, and cry in order to pass on important information to other elephants. But they also communicate with low-frequency rumbles that other elephants pick up through their feet, from many miles away. Stanford University researcher Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell has found that these vocalizations (as well as vibrations from foot stomps) can be heard with elephants' enlarged ear bones and felt with the sensitive nerve endings in their feet. They then use a form of signal triangulation to identify where a message is coming from and what it means, such as a mating call, alarm cry, or the sudden movement of another herd. Elephants are capable of detecting sounds waves that have traveled for dozens of miles underground.

I feel the Earth move under my feet:

  • Seismic communication helps elephants survive. The long-distance communication helps them find food and water, and warn of possible danger. Elephants can also detect the low-frequency (infrasound) rumbles of thunderstorms many miles away, which are outside the range of human hearing.

  • O’Connell-Rodwell thinks that “seismic waves could travel from their toenails to the ear via bone conduction, or through somatosensory receptors in the foot similar to ones found in the trunk,” adding that “it may be a combination of both.”

  • O'Connell-Rodwell has been studying elephants living near the same natural freshwater spring in Namibia’s Etosha National Park for more than 25 years.

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