By Michael Pardo, Cornell University
The first time I saw wild Asian elephants was last December, in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka. As a first year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, I was trying to come up with a project, and was considering this park as a potential field site. I was struck by the sheer variety of sounds that the elephants made. Yes, they gave the well-known trumpets, but they also produced roars that carried for miles, rumbles so low-pitched that my human ears could barely detect them, and squeaks that sounded more like a dog’s chew toy than an elephant. Why do these animals have so many different calls? What do these calls mean? The truth is, no one knows. In fact, we know surprisingly little about how Asian elephants behave in the wild—even less than we know about their African cousins. I’ve made it my business to uncover some of the secrets of Asian elephant communication—and hopefully get my Ph.D. in the process!
We share a startling amount in common with elephants. Both of us are long-lived and have very large brains relative to our body size. We both have vast social networks, and can remember individuals for decades. And we both exhibit a large degree of cooperation within our social groups. This is significant because one hypothesis for the reason that human language evolved to be so complex is that we needed a complex language to deal with our intricate social relationships, and to help us cooperate more effectively. Given the striking parallels between the social behavior of humans and elephants, it’s very easy to imagine that elephant communication has a lot going on beneath the surface.
Asian elephants sometimes combine calls into sequences. You can see an example of this in these spectrograms, which are visual representations of sound. The first call is a longroar, a loud, noisy vocalization. The second is a rumble, a low-pitched, rolling sound. The third call looks a lot like a combination of the first two, and is called (aptly enough), a longroar-rumble. To me, this begs the question: are these call combinations analogous to the way that we combine words into sentences? If they are, this could be the first case of grammar-like communication in a non-primate. However, it’s possible that the call combinations are just two separate signals that happen to be produced close together. The only way to know for sure is to digitally manipulate recordings to create different sequences, play them back to the elephants, and observe their responses. This type of experiment, called a “playback” experiment, is the gold standard in the field of animal communication. It allows us to gain a window into how the animals perceive different calls, the closest we can come to actually asking them.
This January, I’ll be returning to Sri Lanka for six months to do the first ever playback experiments with Asian elephants. It is perhaps understandable that no one has attempted these experiments with Asian elephants before, because it’s a logistical nightmare! For one thing, many elephant calls have components below the range of human hearing. The laws of physics dictate that in order to reproduce such low pitches, you need a truly massive loudspeaker. Transporting a two hundred plus pound speaker to a remote location in a developing country is not cheap. On top of that, I need to hire two jeeps: one to carry the loudspeaker out of sight of the elephants, and the other to drive closer to the herd so I can observe their behavior.
Because my thesis is completely independent from my advisor’s research, I am responsible for funding my project on my own. I am trying to raise some of the money for my research through the crowdfunding platform Microryza. In case you’re not familiar with crowdfunding, the idea is raise a certain amount of money via small donations from many people. You have a limited amount of time to reach your goal, so the more exposure the project gets, the better. If you’re able, I would appreciate it so much if you could contribute a small amount to my project. Even if you’re not able to donate, if you could share this link to my project on Facebook or Twitter, that would be amazing. I’ll be sure to keep you updated with the latest news about the research, and I’ll post plenty of photos and videos from the field!