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Ladies and gentlemen ... the elephants.

If this band of rockers tours your town, don't buy a ticket. You won't hear a thing.

You know the kind of bass notes you can feel? That's what The Elephants are famous for--deep, booming sounds that rumble through your body like an earthquake or thunder.

Never heard of The Elephants? Don't tell Katy Payne. She's probably the group's biggest fan. In fact, she "discovered" them.

Her first encounter with the pulsating pachyderms occurred when she decided to take a break from listening to whale songs. Payne, you see, is an animal communication expert. She wanted to know how elephants "talk" to one another--how they alert one another to approaching danger, or to the location of a good water hole. So she went to the zoo in Portland, Oregon, to eavesdrop on some Asian elephants and their newborns.

After four days, though, she realized she had a problem. "I hardly heard a thing," she recalls.

Later, when Payne took off on a plane for home, something struck her. Not only did she hear the jet engines roar, she also felt them throb. The feeling was a lot like the one she used to get as a little girl in church, when the low organ notes would boom right through her body.

The more she thought about it, the more Payne realized that she had felt something similar in the elephant pens. Maybe the elephants were making sounds--vibrations--but Payne just couldn't hear them. After all, we humans can only tune in to sounds of certain frequencies, measured by the number of vibrations per second, or hertz (see graph, right). If elephants sing below that range, we'd only hear the sounds of silence.

Payne decided to revisit the zoo to investigate. This time, she had fellow scientist Bill Langbauer put a super-sensitive tape recorder in the elephant pens.

The scientists recorded and observed the elephants for one month, during which they heard some 130 elephant calls. They thought that was pretty good until they replayed the tape at high speed, thus increasing the frequency (and pitch) of the recorded sounds. Lo and behold! Out came some 400 elephant calls--a regular concert!

So it was clear that the elephants had plenty to say. It's just that most of the sounds were infrasonic--below the range of human hearing.


Payne's curiousity didn't end when she found out that elephants make sounds, however. She wanted to see if they would respond to such sounds in the wild. So she grabbed a tape of the elephant calls--the group's first album, you might say--and headed for elephant country.

When she played the tape at regular speed for elephants in the wild, Payne couldn't hear most of the sounds. But she could see the elephants lift their ears to listen, and occasionally move toward the speakers that were broadcasting the calls!

These actions showed that elephants almost surely use infrasounds to communicate. About what is still a question. "We don't know the meanings of the elephant calls," Payne says. "And we're still testing how elephants might use them over long distances."

There are other questions Payne would like to answer too, like whether elephants hear and react to the infrasounds made by earthquakes and volcanoes. She's also curious about whether other animals make--or hear--infrasounds. After all, there are plenty of animals that make and hear ultrasounds--sounds above the human range of hearing.

Imagine what would happen if all these animals got together to form a band? With their combined range, they'd probably knock Mariah Carey right off the charts.
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Title Annotation:Animal Hearing Ranges
Publication:Science World
Date:Feb 26, 1993
Previous Article:Pitch hitter.
Next Article:No noise is good news.

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