How to Woo an Elephant (Insincerely)


Birds twitter. Cats meow. Dogs bark. And elephants…rumble.

It’s one of the most curious corners of the biophony – the low-frequency noise (on the lower edge of our own hearing) that elephants send into the ground to attract a mate. The vibration is picked up by potential partners through their forelegs, and from there it’s transmitted to a bone in their middle ear (here’s the science of it – pdf). Amazingly, this may work over distances of up to 6 miles. It’s only one aspect of the diverse, sophisticated language that elephants employ, but it’s one that environmentalists are using to save elephant lives.

In Namibia, elephants are only protected within the boundaries of the Etosha National Parks. When bull elephants stray outside, they trample on crops, destroy property and threaten livelihoods – and enraged farmers respond with hails of bullets. If the elephants can be encouraged to respect borders, they will remain safe.

And that’s where rumblings come in. By sending similar vibrations into the ground using speakers, park rangers could lure elephants deeper into the park where they’re safest. (Since the rangers will be attracting bull elephants on heat, it’s safe to assume Jeep maintenance will become an even higher priority).

So are elephants unique in using this seismic chatline? And with all the noise we make from mining and construction, how many of the natural world’s conversations are we butting in on?

Image: lillarkie

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.