Elephants may be talking back and forth with their feet,through vibrations they pick up from the ground. StanfordUniversity biologist Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, says, “Forpeople who have spent time studying elephants, this is arelief. They finally understand some strange things thatwere happening with elephants and they really are excitedabout it.”

Observations of African elephants in Namibia over 10 yearsleft O’Connell-Rodwell puzzled. It was clear they werecommunicating with each other, but she couldn?t figure outhow. Then she realized they were using their feet.

“We are focusing on the idea that elephants may be able todetect seismic vibrations through the earth,” says fellowresearcher Lynette Hart, of the University of California. “That would give them information about the location ofother elephants, whether they are in distress, if they arefamily members and also tell them something about distantweather patterns.”

“Research demonstrates how important communication is to anelephant,” Hart says.”They are highly social; they vocalize often and they liketo maintain acoustic contact with other herds. If they wereable to do this over a much longer distance, then elephantscould forage at much longer distances in the dry season andstill maintain social contact.They could also detect danger from further away.”

One advantage of this foot stomping communication is thatground vibrations can travel further than airborne sounds.According to geophysicist Byron Arnason, sounds can travel 6miles at the most through the air, while seismic sounds cantravel 4 miles further through the ground. African and Asianfarmers might be able to keep elephants away from theircrops by burying seismic vibrators around the edges of theirfields.

But it may be hard to fool a hungry elephant. Lynette Hartsays, “The elephant is on a different time frame. It is soslow yet it has a very high level of intelligence. It’sdifficult for us to put ourselves into the body of anelephant and try to make sense or ask intelligent questionsthat would reveal how an elephant is really operating.”

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