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Stanford University School of Medicine

Elephants chat a bit before departing water hole, new Stanford research shows

Field biologist Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, PhD, has an up-close-and-personal relationship with elephants living in the wilds of Africa. She has spent decades of summers hunkered down in a bunker or perched atop a tower observing their behavior and has written numerous scientific studies on her findings. (Some videos of her work and the elephants' sounds can be found on Utopia Scientific's website.)

O’Connell-Rodwell wrote a series of blogs from Namibia this summer in the New York Times, in which she referred to her research subjects on a first-name basis, revealing a love and respect for these creatures that she’s come to know so well.

Her latest study, appearing in the October issue of the journal Bioacoustics, describes the communication skills within family groups. I discuss it in a story published today on our website:

In the wilds of Africa, when it’s time for a family of elephants gathered at a watering hole to leave, the matriarch of the group gives the 'let’s-go rumble' — as it’s referred to in scientific literature — kicking off a coordinated and well-timed conversation, of sorts, between the leaders of the clan.

First, the head honcho moves away from the group, turns her back and gives a long, slightly modulated and — to human ears — soft rumble while steadily flapping her ears. This spurs a series of back and forth vocalizations, or rumbles, within the group before the entire family finally departs.

O’Connell-Rodwell is also an instructor in otolaryngology here. This latest study adds to a body of research which, she hopes, will lead to advances in hearing aids for the hearing impaired, using the new understandings of elephants' use of vibrations for communication.

Previously: Researcher dishes on African elephant soap opera and Caller ID  in the wild: Elephants hear underground
Photo copyrighted by Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell and Timothy Rodwell

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