Remember that wonder childrens book, Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss. A favorite for generations. Horton, an elephant, shows the remarkable ability to hear (but not see) the Whos who live on a tiny speck of dust. Now thats good hearing.
Well, it seems that Horton and the rest of the elephantine crew are actually able to communicate two different ways. Their big floppy ears are perfect for picking up sounds transmitted through the air the way sound is usually sent from source to receptor. Additionally, these behemoths talk to each other seismically through their toes. What?
Yes indeed, in 1994 researcher Dr. Caitlin OConnell-Rodwell was studying elephants and noticed unusual behavior when low-frequency sounds were transmitted through the earth. Instead of opening their ears, the elephants closed them, stood up sometimes on three-feet. Why?
The sensitive toes of the elephant were picking up rumblings through the earth from other pachyderms in the neighborhood. Some of its just elephant chatter: Good food over here or Wife Wanted. But these seismic signals also warned of dangers. Hey, I think there may be a tiger heading your way. Hows the wife and kids?
In fact, according to Dr. OConnell-Rodwell, the ground-rumbling communications, elephant to elephant, is so sophisticated that an elephants toes can tell if the communication is from a friend or, perhaps an intruder. Sound the alert. Theres an intruder among us, only they probably arent as dramatic stomping their feet.
Caller ID Elephant Style
It might be a little hard to believe given that my caller ID keeps telling me my doctors calling when its someone else entirely, but the seismic communication between elephants is so sensitive and so sophisticated that one member of the herd can discern the stompings of another herd member up to 12 miles away the sound traveling through the ground. Come on, thats pretty cool.
How It Works
Great, if youre 16 feet tall and have ears the size of a dish antenna. The listening elephant catches the vibrations with its toes, behind which lie pads of acoustically sensitive fat. Similar tissue is in the heels of the elephants feet and in its trunk which augment the toe sensors, according to Colin Nickerson writing in The Boston Globe.
The vibrations speed along bones to the elephants middle ear. They are processed in the audio cortex area of the brain, just like regular sound. Nickerson explains.
Translating Elephant Speak to Humans
No, we dont expect to see people stand on one foot, head cocked listening for seismic messages from a member of the herd good eats over here.
But when viewed at a macro level, understanding a communication mode in nonhuman species has implications for developing strategies in humans with sensory defects, said Chief of Audiology at Stanford, Gerald Popelka.
Is there a direct correlation between the seismic communication of wild elephants and improved hearing in humans? Mmmm, maybe, maybe not. Is it possible to develop a language based on touch and seismic messaging? Can the elephants ability to pick up low frequency sounds 12 miles out there be used to develop alternative communication for humans who cannot be helped by conventional means, such as surgery or hearing aids.
Its all data. Good data that can be used by lots of researching studying cross species communication between critter and human and alternative modalities of hearing.
Down the road, who knows where this research will lead but its already got imaginations running full steam ahead.
Blatant authors message: we need to spend more time learning from nature. There is so much to learn. So much to gain.