A Trumpet Call to Communication

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Chances are, you’ve been told: “communication is key,” but the key to what? When applied to sensory ecology, the “novel field of study examining animal communication by trying to understand how individuals perceive their surroundings and one another, needed to understand biology in the wild,” the phrase begins to unravel. It reveals that communication between animals is the key to uncovering their behaviors, relationships, motives—in essence, their lifestyles. Dr. Matt Anderson and Dr. Lance Miller, both behavioral biologists who work at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, demonstrated how impactful communication is, specifically to the elephant herd at the Wild Animal Park.
From the iconic reverberating trumpet call to the deep rumbling vocal noises, the elephants can convey stress, playfulness, hunger, or even signal that a calf is about to be born. Extremely low frequencies, inaudible to the human ear, pass between these giants, enabling them to sense what’s new and happening. Sometimes, by opening their mouths and vocalizing, they become energized and animated, comparable to how people feel while conversing with a group of their friends. Sure, humans don’t verbally communicate through rumbles and trumpeting, but the principle is still there: we both convey our needs, emotions, excitements and share events with each other. An elephant may signal aggression with low infrasound waves, a person may feel uncomfortable and forcefully assert, “Back off!”

Dr. Anderson explained another example of a social interaction that relates to our society. He used the example of a bully: an elephant may begin suggesting violence to establish dominance, when in truth, it just appears intimidating to gain authority. This can be demonstrated by “bush-bashing” which is when an elephant flings its head back and forth in bushes to signify its strength, or a forceful toss of the trunk towards another elephant. Actions such as these are examples of posture, more familiar sounding as body language. Although humans do not jostle bushes or toss their heads, the motives behind the actions are, once again, familiar. Intimidators in school may give a fist gesture, or even just a facial expression of disgust to gain something, whether tangible (who hasn’t heard of the kid who takes lunch money?) or just a feeling of control.

Every movement or sound— head tilt, tail or trunk position, rumble, glance back, or contact—are puzzle pieces to how elephants thrive in their habitats. By observing these communicating gestures, behavioral biologists such as Dr. Anderson and Dr. Miller can unravel many questions pertaining to this species: Why do elephants migrate towards certain places? What social bonds within a herd are strongest? How do vocalizations keep a herd together? Studying interactions amongst any group of animals can generate a slew of information. In behavioral biology, the aphorism “communication is key” is a vital guide to learning more about how animals not only survive, but thrive, humans included.

Celena Derderian, Real World Team