Elephants are fascinating creatures…

January 4, 2010

And here’s why. Elephants (and possibly all creatures if a new study is representative of greater bestial activities) have been found to possess a structured system of communication that can be interpreted in human terms. This should not be surprising (it’s been done with dolphins before). But since the refined physical rituals performed by the animals seems so similar to our own, whatever we can understand from elephants will certainly be revealing. To be able to hear and to comprehend these animals through our own language, our own understanding: what an amazing thought.

I see the flaw as well as you. We inhabit a certain time and a particular ideology not necessarily shared among the entire population. We are the “west” after all, a strain of humanity different from the “rest,” we are told. So, yes, it is problematic to apply our own customs and emotional tethers to these animals, cute though they are. What gives us the right to categorize and enclose an elephant’s voice, which is the inextricable essence of being this animal?

I don’t know. And I don’t care. At least we are studying them, learning about them, and not killing them. [Researchers estimate that ten percent of Dzanga’s elephants are killed each year for their ivory.] The conclusions drawn may be meaningless. But, as the advert says, every little bit (of knowledge) helps.

Leave that for a second. Let me give you a little background provided by a lovely 60 Minutes report given tonight.

Cornell University sponsors this study, which will eventually produce a dictionary of the language of elephants. You heard me correct: they have and are continuing to interpret the vocalizations of elephants based on years (decades even) of physical observation. Nearly twenty years (and an expectation of at least fifteen more from the main researcher) have produced astounding results in understanding pachyderm communication. Scientists can now distinguish the various calls of the animals: the cries of protest, the loud rumble that means hey, etc.

Until recently, it was unknown that elephants had a secret infrasonic language. Much of their communication is at a frequency too low for humans to detect. Now the cleverly-titled Elephant Listening Project at Cornell uses computer-based spectrograms to record and analyze these sounds and interpret their meanings as well. It is believed that these low-level rumbles can be heard by elephants over a mile away. Impressive.

But what I am most intrigued by is the elephant death ritual. After filming the natural death of a baby elephant in 2000, scientists observed that the elder elephants would approach the body and touch it again and again, trying to make the elephant arise. After a long period, they would line up and pass the dead body, a funeral procession for pachyderms. When close to the body, each elephant would touch or smell it and then cry or roar aloud. This period lasted for several days. It is tragic and beautiful. I really think you should see it.

Bob Simon’s report on these magnificent creatures can be found on the 60 Minutes website. Click here to watch.


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