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Watch How Elephants May Hear Distant Water

Elephants eat grass at the Hluhluwe game reserve on the outskirts of Hluhluwe, South Africa.
Schalk van Zuydam
Elephants eat grass at the Hluhluwe game reserve on the outskirts of Hluhluwe, South Africa.

Elephants' ability to hear what is called infrasound — sound waves with frequencies too low for humans to hear — has been known about for years.

But recently, a new twist in elephants' infrasound detection was discovered — and now it has been caught on film.

In a paper published in October 2014, researcher Michael Garstang and colleagues reported that African elephants fitted with GPS devices were found to move toward thunderstorms 150 miles away. Garstang, et al., concluded:

"We suggest that low-frequency sounds produced by rain storms represent a more plausible explanation of a detectable signal generated by a distant rain event. Not all rainstorms may generate infrasonic signals and not all elephants will exhibit a response to such sounds. Nevertheless, the response documented in this study suggests that the elephants of western Namibia change their movement behavior roughly coincident with a change in the seasonal rainfall climate of the region. This change in movement occurs well before (days to weeks) any rain actually falls in the elephants' location."

Now, in an informal experiment using a customized computer playback system and a speaker, a small group of rescued African elephants is shown on film as they react visibly to infrasounds of a distant intense thunderstorm — even as the people nearby can hear nothing at all.

Watch the three-minute video of the experiment, airing on a BBC program, here.

Elephants also listen with their feet to underground vibrations, so attending to seismic signals of thunder may be a factor as well in their travel decisions.

We humans can't enter fully into the perceptual worlds of elephants — or of many other animals for that matter. This fact, for me, makes the study of animal behavior only that much more thrilling. Certainly, we need to keep asking innovative questions that may reveal information about the intelligence and emotions of the remarkable elephants in our world.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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