Happy EleFACT Friday. We often discuss different ways that elephants communicate with each other, either by touching or vocalizations. Today we’ll be talking about seismic communication.
Seismic communication is produced by impacts on the surface of the ground that create acoustic waves which travel and produce vibrations. Elephants rely on their leg and shoulder bones to transmit these vibrational signals to their middle ear. There’s a unique muscle in the ear canal that constricts the passageway, which dampens the acoustic signals and allows the elephant to focus more on the seismic signals. This can also be intensified by leaning forward and putting more weight on their larger front feet, allowing them to detect the vibrations in the ground. This is called “freezing behavior.”
Other studies show that elephants may have mechano-receptors in the toes, feet, or trunk that are sensitive to vibrations. These are nodes of cartilage in the cushion pads of their feet similar to the acoustic fat present in marine mammals, like whales.
These seismic communication vibrations are created when elephants are running and can be detected by other elephants from great distances. They can also be used as somewhat of an alarm call, to alert others of potential predators. For comparison, these seismic vibrations can create waveforms that can travel distances of up to 32 km (20 mi), while sound waves from vocalizations alone travel closer to 16 km (10 mi).
Photo of Bambi, Mara, and Rana, undoubtedly creating some seismic vibrations of their own