Elephants hear with their feet!!

Elephants hear with their feet!!

Young elephant spraying soil to cool down on a hot day.

Elephants are strange creatures, aren’t they? What with their slurpy trunks, their huge ears that look as though they should be wings and their tubby, round bodies, they really are creatures out of a fairy tale! Their great grey mass and strange appearance belie the fact that they are actually hugely intelligent with the most incredible array of skills…

An African elephant’s ears can reach over six feet (1.82 m) long and 4 feet (1.21 m) wide (Asian elephants’ ears are MUCH smaller). With a bit of imagination, one could almost say they resemble the shape of our continent. These ears comprise 20% of the elephant’s entire surface area, and they can weigh up to 20kg each – all covered in very thin skin. Beyond being used for hearing and to convey an elephant’s mood, they are used to assist in thermoregulation. Living on the African savannah, these animals have to cope with extreme heat. Their dark colouring absorbs heat readily, and their bulk creates much heat and inhibits the dispersal of that accumulated heat. Their great big ears are used as a mechanism to cool down. In fact, they can cool their bodies by as much as three degrees Celsius! The large surface area of their ears has a lot of tiny blood vessels that are close to the surface, which act as a heat radiator. It is estimated that around 12 litres of blood can be circulated through an African elephant’s ear each minute. 

Mud is sprayed behind the ears to assist in the cooling process…

In hot weather, elephants increase the blood supply to the ears and flap them around to lose body heat. Other methods of cooling down include spraying dust, mud or water behind their ears, which also cools the blood in the capillaries. On cold days, you will notice that elephants hold their ears close to their bodies, thus conserving heat. If the observation “Oh my, what big ears you have!” was made, a fantasy elephant might well reply, “All the better to hear you with!”  .  Which is only partly true… The large area of their ears acts like a satellite dish which channels sounds into the eardrum (the opening of which is in front of the flap). It is said that they can hear and are capable of recognizing calls and voices of particular individuals from 1000 to 1500m away – with their ears. 

In the late 80s, it was discovered that elephants also produce strong, low-frequency (infrasound) rumbles below 20 hertz – which are airborne and can travel as far as 10km. These low-frequency vocalizations are primarily used to communicate with other far-off elephants. For comparison, if humans have very good hearing, they can just barely detect sounds at 20 Hz. Since low-frequency sound as a rule travels farther through closed habitats than higher-frequency sound, forest elephants in particular make much use of this form of communication.

Just chillin’…

As if that wasn’t strange enough, here’s where it gets really interesting, because they actually ‘hear’ with their feet as well!! This is a vast, intricate subject, but in a nutshell, they perceive vibrations through the soles of their feet. Known as seismic communication, researcher Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell believes that this is “the key to understanding the complex dynamics of elephant communities. There are seismic messages that are sent passively, such as when elephants eavesdrop on each other’s footsteps. More active announcements include alarm cries, mating calls and navigation instructions to the herd.” These ‘ground vibrations’ reach the hearing centre of the brain by ‘bone conduction’. The message travels, via the feet, through the elephant’s skeleton, and directly to its inner ear bones – thereby bypassing the eardrum altogether. (Ref: Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell). It is believed that these signals, dependent on substrate and interference, can travel over 30km. Foot stomping is also now thought to be a part of this method of communication. But wait, there’s more…

Ears are used in body language too – this youngster is definitely NOT chillin’.

Elephants in Namibia have been seen to respond to the rains taking place almost 250km away! Always on the lookout for water and food, elephants will migrate over large distances to access these resources, particularly if their home range is arid. What is also interesting is that they often changed direction for no apparent reason. Researchers attached GPS units to some of these elephants in an attempt to solve the mystery. Between 2002 and 2009 they tracked these animals and also the weather, using satellite data. The result was a direct correlation between the herd’s sudden changes in direction and rainstorms – the herds were following storms that were often more than 250km away! The mystery of how the herds are aware of the storms remains, but it is suspected that they are able to ‘hear’ either the thunder claps or the rain hitting the ground through the soles of their feet!! Isn’t that amazing?

#AfricanElephants #ElephantLove #ElephantSafari

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team 

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