Elephants Learn New Vocal Tricks
March 28, 2005

Humans, dolphins, bats and some birds are able to copy the sounds they hear to communicate with other members of their groups. Research with two African elephants shows that these giant creatures can be added to this short list of copycats.

Scientists made sound recordings from two African elephants named Mlaika and Calimero. Mlaika is a ten-year-old female elephant who lives three kilometers from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway in Kenya. She learned to make sounds just like a truck. In fact, statistical analysis showed that Mlaika's calls were not different from a real truck. The other elephant, Calimero, is a 23-year-old male who lived for 18 years with two female Asian elephants at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland. Calimero learned the typical chirp sounds made by the Asian elephants. Other African elephants do not make these chirps.

Learning and using new sounds allows members of a group to communicate with each other. The research team believes the elephants' vocal skills help the animals recognize each other and maintain social contact with other elephants.

Did You Know?

  • An elephant brain weighs approximately 6,000 grams.
  • Elephants have a hearing range between 1 and 20,000 Hz. The very low frequency sounds are in the "infrasound" range. Humans cannot hear sounds in the infrasound range.
  • African elephants sleep only 3.3 hours each day. Asian elephants sleep only 3.9 hours each day.
  • The total surface area of the African elephant cerebral cortex is 6,300 cm2. The surface area of the human cerebral cortex is 2,500 cm2.
(References: Nieuwenhuys, R., Ten Donkelaar, H.J. and Nicholson, C., The Central Nervous System of Vertebrates, Vol. 3, Berlin: Springer, 1998; Peters, A. and Jones, E.G., Cerebral Cortex, New York: Plenum Press, 1984.)

References and further information:

  1. Poole, J.H., Tyack, P.L., Stoeger-Horwath, A.S. and Watwood, S., Elephants are capable of vocal learning, Nature, 434:455-456, 2005.
  2. Savanna Elephant Voices Project

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