How Elephants Communicate From Miles Away

In 1941, movie fans of all ages were delighted by the story of Dumbo, a fictional circus elephant with really big ears. In the story, Dumbo is ridiculed for his peculiar difference, a fact that is even reflected in his name; he’s considered “dumb.” But Dumbo ends up the hero, as you’d expect. While at first, he trips over his ears and becomes a laughing stock (and the circus, therefore, uses him as a clown), Dumbo later figures out how to uses his ears as wings, and becomes the world-famous flying elephant, a boon to the circus for which he performs.

It’s a great story with a great moral. But as it turns out — flight aside — elephants don’t benefit from having extra larger ears. In fact, even if those areas are big enough to double as wings, elephants are better suited by staying on the ground. Why?

Because elephants can hear through their feet. Well, kind of.

When elephants “talk,” they can be really loud — they’re huge animals, after all. And that sound is probably louder than you think. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, perhaps the world’s foremost experts on all things elephants, told KQED that “when an elephant vocalizes, it’s like a mini-explosion at the source.” And like an explosion, you can not only hear the sounds with your ears, but you can feel the vibrations through your bones. When bombs go off, though, that’s a side effect — the point of those types of explosions is to blow stuff up, not make the ground shake a bit. Not so for elephants, it seems.

Elephants transmit low-frequency waves through the ground when they speak. While the high-frequency vocal sounds travel about a mile, the ground waves can go five times that distance. And there, other elephants can pick up the signal. As this KQED video explains, when elephants detect these “rumbles,” they press their feet to the ground. The elephants’ feet pick up these signals and transmit them to the skeleton. Whether this is “hearing” or “feeling,” as the video notes, is an open question (but it’s likely that some of those signals go into the elephants’ ear, if that makes a difference). That distinction is likely lost on the elephants themselves, but as it turns out, how they “hear” other elephants matters. KQED explains further:

In a series of experiments first developed with the help of an elephant at the Oakland Zoo, O’Connell-Rodwell played typical calls on speakers buried in the ground to elephants at the watering hole at Mushara. She found that a predator alarm played on an above-ground speaker caused the herd to flee immediately. They responded quite differently, however, to the same call played underground. They closed ranks, but stayed put. 

As a result, elephants have a big advantage over would-be predators — if one herd is attacked, they have ways of warning those far away, and to do so in a way that will lead to better survival strategies. Of course, this only works if the elephants keep their feet to the ground, so maybe big-eared ones shouldn’t take to the skies after all.


Bonus fact: If you know CPR and hit a baby elephant with your car or motorcycle, you can potentially save the animal’s life. The proof: this happened in Thailand in December of 2020. As the BBC reported, a rescue worker named Mana Srivate struck an elephant as it was crossing the road, likely causing the animal’s heart to stop. But Mana didn’t leave it for dead. He immediately began CPR, telling Reuters that he “assumed where an elephant heart would be located based on human theory and a video clip [he] saw online.” And it worked — ten minutes later, the elephant was able to walk away on its own power. 

For Mana, the success brought him to tears — and it was also a milestone moment for him. Despite a career trying to saves lives, per the BBC, “that the elephant was the only victim he had ever managed to revive through cardiopulmonary resuscitation.”

From the Archives: Bee Fence: Elephants don’t like bees.