The Secret Language of Elephants

The Secret Language of Elephants

This episode of SciShow is sponsored by Brilliant! Go to to learn more. [♪ INTRO] In 1984, biologist Katharine Payne spent a
week observing elephants at a zoo in Oregon, and she noticed something strange. Every now and then, she could feel what she
described as a faint throbbing in the air, like silent
thunder. But it wasn’t thunder she was feeling- it was the elephants’ secret language. You might’ve heard elephants trumpeting
and grunting before, but those noises are just a fraction of the
sounds they actually produce. The rest are so low-pitched that our ears
can’t pick them up. Elephants do most of their chatting at these
low registers, and it actually has some pretty big advantages
for them. Months after Payne first heard the rumbles, she went back to the zoo and recorded the
elephants. When she and colleagues played the tapes back at high speed and higher pitch, they
could hear that the elephants were as noisy as a bunch
of cows on a farm! We humans can only hear frequencies between
about 20 hertz and 20,000 hertz. Sounds below that range are called infrasonic. And that infrasonic range is where most elephant
communication happens, between around 14 and 35 hertz. This secret banter isn’t just good for talking
about other animals behind their backs, though. Infrasound allows elephants to communicate over impressively long distances. Lower frequency sounds have longer wavelengths- imagine widely-spaced ripples instead of closely-spaced
ripples. And since they vibrate more slowly, they lose
energy more slowly, too, meaning they can travel
farther before fading out. On top of that, high-frequency sounds tend
to be blocked or absorbed by obstacles like trees, but low-frequency sound waves are larger than most barriers
in their path, so they can pass around them and keep going. So those high-pitched trumpeting noises elephants
make? Those tend to peter out after traveling around
100 meters. But infrasonic calls can travel much, much
farther. So Payne and other researchers started looking for evidence that elephants communicate over
long distances … and they found it! By tracking the movements of elephants with
radio collars, the researchers observed that family groups were able to spend days coordinating their
movements with each other, even when they were separated by as much as five kilometers. And when fertile female elephants belted out
their infrasonic mating calls, eager male elephants
as far as a kilometer out would start walking their
way! They can achieve this incredible long-distance communication in part because infrasound just
naturally travels far, and also because elephants are ridiculously
loud. The loudest recorded elephant calls are around
117 decibels— that’s about as loud as construction equipment
or a rock concert. Imagine being at a rock concert and not being
able to hear anything except maybe a faint rumble in the
air! Elephants also take advantage of environmental
factors, which can have a big impact on how far their
voices carry. In forests, their voices have to push through
the trees and compete with lots of other noises, so
they usually fade out in less than a kilometer. They tend to do a lot more talking at quieter
times of day, like early evening, when a forest elephant’s
voice might reach up to three kilometers. But out on the savanna, with fewer obstacles and less competing noise, the major limiting
factor is the atmosphere! During the day, the air over the ground is
warmer than the air higher up. Since sound travels faster through warmer
air, the bottom of the sound wave moves faster than the top of the sound wave, which causes
it to bend upward. So daytime sound waves only travel so far before turning away from the ground. But at night, the air near the ground cools
down much faster than the air above it. Now the temperature gradient flips, creating
what’s called a temperature inversion. And instead of bending upward, sound waves bend back toward the ground. The layer of cool air basically becomes a
channel that sound can travel through for much longer
distances. Around sunset and sunrise, when the temperature inversion is the strongest and the winds are
calmest, it’s been estimated that elephant calls could travel as far as 10 kilometers! And while observing elephants in the wild, researchers have seen that the animals will occasionally raise their ears and stand still to listen to the distant calls of other elephants. Studies have shown that the inner ear structures of elephants are extremely large, making them especially good at gathering low-energy infrasonic
sound waves. But they might not just be listening to each
other … they might also be listening to the sounds
of Mother Nature. Widespread legends in African and Indian cultures say that if you see an elephant after several
dry months, it means the rain is finally coming. And like a lot of folklore, it seems to have
some truth to it. See, rainstorms are very noisy, especially
at low frequencies, and there’s evidence that elephants might
be able to use their super-hearing to forecast the
weather. Research in the early 2000s tracked elephant
movements across the seasons and found that elephants
tend to exhibit different movement patterns in
wet conditions versus dry ones. When the dry season turns to the rainy season (or even when there’s a particularly rainy
day during the dry season) elephants tend to switch from short-distance
foraging to long-distance migration or vice versa. Exactly why they do this isn’t totally clear, but what is really interesting is that the
elephants usually changed their behavior days or weeks before the rains even reached them. It’s like the elephants could hear the storm
coming. In many cases, the researchers saw that elephants in different locations would simultaneously react to the same distant storm. In at least one instance, the animals responded to a storm nearly 300 kilometers away! So elephants are clearly tapped into a world
of sound that we’ve only recently started to appreciate. And in a world where scientists are desperately
trying to protect these majestic animals from extinction, their super-hearing may be key to understanding how they fit into their ecosystems. It takes a lot of different kinds of science
working together to understand how elephants communicate: biology, atmospheric science, the physics
of sound. If you’re interested in learning more about
any or all of these kinds of science, you might
be interested in the courses on Brilliant has more than 60 courses about science, engineering, computer science, and math. You can use those courses to brush up on fundamentals or do a deep dive on a topic—whatever feels
right to you. The courses are hands-on, with guided problems and explanations, along with interactive quizzes. They’re put together by math and science
educators from places like MIT, Caltech, Duke, the University
of Chicago, so you’re learning from the best. You can also get Brilliant courses on your
phone through the iOS or Android app, so you can keep learning wherever you go. If you’re interested, you can get 20% off
an annual Premium subscription by signing up at [♪ OUTRO]

100 thoughts on “The Secret Language of Elephants

  1. I hope rain happens more often for all the wild life in Africa! 🙏♥️😢🌧️🐯🦁🐗🦓🐃🐘🦏🦒🦍🐒

  2. have a computer deerer learning create a muli verse
    Computers within computers
    Man I have good Ideas 🤔 I need Sophia the Robots expertise

  3. I don't have the schooling
    I need life extension and reverse aging
    I neen Stem upgrade and Sophia

    I need love too!

  4. I expect better of a science communication channel than flippantly calling any form of communication "language". Scientists have a strict definition of what language is, and we've never found an animal other than humans whose communication is advanced enough to count.

  5. listening to this and the constant references to high and low frequencies brought back strong memories of my old BASS 305 tracks…… #goodtimes.

  6. I've heard that elephants can also communicate over long distances by stomping on the ground. The stomp send vibrations through the ground which can be felt/heard by other elephants far away. Is there any truth to this?

  7. Can estrogen be link to agression. Did you know Female ferrets when in heat have 😘 or they die of high blood pressure do to High estrogen

  8. Elephants are really majestic animals, they have the best scent of all mammals, an impressive feauture to hold, may communicate long distances with their infrasound calls, have trunk that allow them to move things and are highly intelligent. If not by humans they would probably be really succesfull animals and be numbering at millions.

  9. Can male Eliphants exiled from the hard stay in contact. .
    I remember an episode of scishow of Scientist unsure why Females are attracted to deaper voice's.
    One theory was it implies stronger immune system. But lot anti bodies and even blood cells are absurd in Womb and milk.
    What they didn't consider what else voice's communicate . Emotion travel longer lower through the brain and heart lower heart rate.
    Men can use deeper voice's as a outside stimulie for Fetuses

  10. Infra-sound!?? I thought Humans were the best creation of God!! How come we don't hear&see everything on the spectrum? Better yet, WHY did God create Animals that do both these things despite not being God's best creation? God, I NEED ANSWERS!

  11. Elephant feet can detect stomps from 32 km and can hear storms from 500 km compared to 30 km to us and they flee from tsunamis first before people do.

  12. I can't remember where I have seen that…it was some kind of documentary, where they tested a device which sends out this mating call and the elephants came quickly after the message was sent out. The interesting part was that this communication happened via the ground, so the sound was channeled into the ground, travelled there and was picked up by another elephant through its legs from the ground.

  13. When I was a kid, my older brother managed to convince me of a remarkably similar explanation of elephant communication over great dices, his version attracting additional credibility by accounting for an elephant's unusually large ears and nose (trunk). Translated from 7 yr old to Adult, he said, "When too far apart to hear trumpeting calls, elephants use infrasonic flatulence to communicate." Worked for me.

  14. 1. Wear ear defenders around elephants, as they may be performing a silent rock concert
    2. Elephants got parabolic antennas long before they were cool
    3. Imagine actually decoding the language of these elephants and creating computer software to converse with them, plus all the Nobel prize-worthy papers that go with it. And then extend this to pretty much every other animal out there.

  15. A zoo in Oregon? That would be the Washington Park Zoo. It has one of the best elephant exhibits in the country. Their exhibit is over 6 Acres. There are 5 elephants at last count I believe. And the only Borneo elephant in the United States lives there too.

  16. Q – What do elephants use for long distance communication?

    (This joke rated PA – millennials may require parental assistance with punchline)

    A- Trunk calls.

  17. Makes sense and explains why elephants broke loose from their chains and ran up a mountain before their humans knew a sunami was coming which killed thousands of people..

  18. Its seems logical to me that elephants would forage farther if storms were coming. It would be much easier physically to travel longer distances during cooler wet conditions than hot and dry ones. Plus the elephant may also reason its not as dangerous to stray farther from known reliable water sources when wet conditions are coming. Seems self evident but thats just me so…???

  19. Nobody:

    Not One Soul:

    Elephants: Oh crap, a hurricane is coming next week.

    Forecasters: what?

    elephants: You might want to get a move on.

    Forecasters: How do you know this?

    Elephants: Can't you hear it, it's loud af man!

    Forecasts: I'm sorry, come again? You know I have radar and European models right? We're fine.

    Elephants: a'ight, suit yourself, have fun swimming loser.

    1 week later

    Forecasters: Evacuate the coast as soon as possible Category 3 Hurricane to make landfall in 12 hours.

    Elephants: Stupid laughs in infrasonic

  20. Before I watch this video: Elephants language is not secret, even thought we can neither hear it nor understand…

  21. This is very oddly timed because I was just thinking of a sort of telepathy that could be used below and above the human hearing range

  22. Mia: OMG did you see Raj's broken tusk?
    Betty: Haha he got his a** handed to him.
    Raj: (3 miles away) I'm standing right here ya know!!!

  23. Elephants won't go extinct. Indians will make sure of that.
    Over 50% of the Tiger population is found in India whilst they went extinct in other parts of Asia.

  24. This reminds me of this book I read a few years ago, 'The Elephant's Secret Sense' by Caitlin O'Connell about this same subject: how elephants communicate with infrasound. Was a pretty decent read, definitely made me more interested in the subject. But the book I got on orangutans, that unfortunately I can't remember the name of.. was just too good and got me way more interested in learning more about them and other apes.

    Elephants get enough attention in media anyways. Still love them though ❤️🐘

  25. "Imagine being at a rock concert and not being able to hear anything, except maybe a faint rumble in the air." Ever breathe a frequency? Sunn O))) m/ xD

  26. This reminds me of something. Years ago someone I once knew said that having an elephant statue in a home prevented the home from getting struck by lightning. She claimed this was because elephants never get struck by lightning. Intersting.

  27. are there other animals that might do as the elephants do, i mean listen to a world we now nothing or little about?
    we know about ultrasound, echolocation, the warfare between echolocating bats and moths. do other animals have superhearing as well?
    do asian elephants and african elephants use their hearing differently? do they have possible different "languages"?
    also "language" sticks to rules and has vocabulary, have we identified if elephants have some kind of rules for vocal communication?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *