As 48 Hours Correspondent Susan Spencer discovered, this language probably doesn't consist of the bellowing commonly heard from elephants.
Since 1984, acoustic biologist Katy Payne of Cornell University has eavesdropped on elephant communication, which takes place at a frequency too low for human ears. These sounds are audible to humans only when an audiotape is played at a faster than normal speed.
Payne first discovered the vibrations in 1984, when she felt subtle vibrations coming from the elephants she was studying. She realized that these vibrations were actually throat sounds, which the animals were making consciously.
It was "a whole new range of communication that no one had studied before in land animals," Payne says.
Payne has spent years recording African elephants in the wild. She is convinced that some of these sounds have specific meanings and that a lot of communication is going on.
She has teased out some of the meanings. Payne has decoded the sound of a female elephant summoning males during the few days she's in heat. In an experiment on the plains of Namibia, Payne played this call on a loudspeaker. Male elephants in the area made a beeline for the speaker.
Researchers also have identified calls used by matriarchs to round up the family, calls among bulls, and calls between moms and their babies.
Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando is tackling the same problem by outfitting elephants with collars and a hidden microphone, which together weigh 12 pounds. Researchers record the calls and videotape the elephants at the same time. Later the calls are matched up with the video to identify which ones spoke and what happened.
"The idea is trying to understand the behavior in response to a call, or does the call elicit a behavior," says conservation biologist Ann Savage, who runs the program.
While Savage hopes to find out a great deal about elephant communication, she is uncertain how complex it is. "We don't really know at this point," she says.
Much remains to be learned. To see if elephants recognized voices as humans did, Payne recently conducted an experiment with tape recordings made 15 years ago, of a pair of elephants now dead. The elephants, Rosy and Tonga, had lived in an Oregon zoo.
Last month Payne returned to the Oregon zoo and played the tape of Rosy and Tonga over a loudspeaker. When the elephants that had known the pair heard the tape, they reacted strangely.
They kept the youngest wedged between two adults, reassured each other with their trunks and walked toward the loudspeakers. Payne thinks that they may have recognized the ghostly voices. "I suspect that this was an indication of remembrance of voices that haven't been hear in a long time," she says.
But she is not sure - not yet anyway. Payne firmly believes that one day, she will understand the language of elephants.
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