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The ‘Let’s Go’ Rumble!

By Russell Tenofsky

How do you tell an elephant it’s time to leave the watering hole? Apparently you use a “let’s go” rumble.

Photo of a herd of elephants.

As published in Bioacoustics, a study led by Dr. Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell reveals how elephants use “conversations” consisting of rumbles to communicate, among other things, when it’s time to leave.

Dr. O’Connell-Rodwell and her colleagues used acoustic instruments to observe elephant vocalization in the Etosha National Park. The scientists measured acoustics and charted the behavior of the elephants at five different watering holes. They catalogued the elephants’ vocalizations from the time they arrived at the watering holes until they decided it was time to leave.

Rumbles are “similar to listening to a truck in the distance. It’s really striking, low frequency,” O’Connell-Rodwell said. “You can almost imagine the cycling of the sound wave. It’s kind of a throbbing in your chest.”

The calls are coordinated among the elephants and the “conversation” may have multiple participants who are spread out over a large area.

“It’s not just a chorus,” O’Connell-Rodwell noted. “As soon as one call ends, another call starts, then the next, then the next. It’s connected like a string. Effectively they take a three-second call and turn it into a nine-second call.”

The scientists discovered the conversations consisted of only a few members of the herd and include a clear hierarchy. “They have a matriarch,” O’Connell-Rodwell said. “Then there’s this sort of secretary-of-state character, and then you have the general who brings up the rear.”

Since many different elephant families may be visiting a watering hole at the same time, watering holes can easily become extremely confusing, cluttered places. “I’ve seen 200 to 300 elephants at the same watering hole at one time before. There’s a lot of vocalization and pushing and shoving and screaming and roaring. You can see why they’d want to avoid that,” said O’Connell-Rodwell.

O’Connell-Rodwell believes the vocalizations and rumbles represent something much more to elephants than just a way to communicate. She argues the way elephants communicate helps them to form a more close-knit and organized society.

“These vocalizations facilitate the bonds between the elephants to be able to work together,” she said. “It’s the measure of an organized society. It demonstrates how another social animal grouping organizes itself through vocalizations.”

In their research, the scientists found that the elephants increased their vocalizations during their departure from the watering holes. According to the scientists’ data, around a third of the communication occurred during the pre-departure conversations, with the other two-thirds occurring during their departure from the watering holes.

“These bouts increased in number as the elephants departed the waterholes,” the study notes, and they “appear to be true communicative events.”

The scientists also believe that their research opens a window into how female elephants work so well together to solve stressful problems. Having a high level of communication and a clearly recognized matriarchal leader assists the elephants in keeping calm and ordered in times of need.

“At our site, we occasionally get newborns falling into the trough. Sometimes the younger mothers get scared and traumatized, they swing their trunk around panicking,” O’Connell-Rodwell explained. “They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen the matriarch and another high-ranking female kneel down and wrap a trunk around the baby and pull them out. The little calf is so distraught, the older siblings come and calm him down.”

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