Do Disney's Real Elephants Have Tales to Tell?

National Geographic News
February 21, 2003

Elephants communicate with one another in a number of ways, including sound, sight, touch, and scent. But it is the noises they make—a repertoire of rumbles, roars, trumpets, bellows, cries, screams, and snorts that spans almost ten octaves, including sounds that humans cannot hear—that scientists find the most challenging to comprehend.

Researchers have been eavesdropping on wild elephants in Africa for years (please see sidebar).

The work continues in Africa today with the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project and the Amboseli Elephant Research Project—undertakings that have collected more than 70 different elephant call types, linked them to observations of elephant behavior, and which are now being made available to the entire scientific community and the public through a database freely accessible on the World Wide Web. (Please read our story on the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project.)

But it is not only in the forests and plains of Africa that researchers are tuning in to elephant "talk." The work is also being done in zoos, where scientists are hoping that what they learn from listening to animals in captivity can extend the knowledge learned in the wild.

Scientists at Disney's Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, are making a contribution to understanding elephant vocalizations in a study designed by a team of researchers with the help of the theme park's "Imagineers."

The Animal Kingdom's Wildlife Tracking Center is leading a project that focuses on how elephants communicate in captivity.

The work builds on the use of wireless microphones created by William Langbauer and a real rocket scientist—Steve Powell of the Cornell Space Sciences Program—for use in Africa, as well as on the work of many scientists who have studied the acoustic and chemical cues associated with elephant reproduction.

"We had Disney engineers and Imagineers design special radio-transmitting collars that the elephants could wear comfortably and unobtrusively," said Anne Savage, conservation biologist at Animal Kingdom. "Inside these collars are microphones that pick up the sounds elephants make and transmit them back to our conservation station where they are recorded and analyzed on computers. Each collar has a different frequency so we can switch back and forth and listen to different elephants."

Since the Animal Kingdom opened its doors to the public in 1998, researchers have been listening in on seven female and three male African elephants. The theme park is particularly interested in studying vocalizations and visual communication with regard to reproduction. "We listen and watch what happens when it's just the females present, then we monitor what happens when the males are present," Savage said.

Reproduction Strategies

The information might allow the researchers to glean valuable information about elephant reproductive strategies—something which is obviously useful for keepers of elephants in captivity but which might also be valuable when compared with observations of the vocalizations and behavior of elephants in the wild.

Information gathered by the team is shared with the research community both in Africa and at zoos.

Continued on Next Page >>




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