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Elephants Can Hear Rain from Hundreds of Kilometers Away


Image credit: Arno Meintjes. Elephants can detect rain hundreds of kilometers away, and head towards it.

The big ears of Namibian elephants are not only for show, but they actually identify rainstorms which occur as far as 280km away. In the following step, those elephants will go for them so as to look for fresh water and something growing after rain. It is much possible that sound seems to be mechanism, which is to confirmed yet.

This is the longer distance than it is from Baltimore to the center of New York, or from London to Manchester. Though in such cases, the senses of immigrating elephants could be confused by the noise of urban environment.

In the period of 1970s and 80s, the elephants in Namibia were nearly wiped out by poachers. However they have begun to revive since the regional wars came to the end, thus making it possible for the government to take some protective measures.

Although the elephants in Africa have learned to adapt themselves to the diversified climates, however, the Namibian environment is far more than usual. As the driest area in sub-Saharan Africa, here it is vital to best use what rains bring out. For those elephants in drier areas, they have to travel in the longest journeys during the wet season, which could cover the ranges of more than 14,000km2.

The rainy season in Namibia lasts from January to March, during which period of time, the local elephants have been found to quickly change the direction of migration, with no obvious reason.

During 2002 and 2009, Michael Garstang, emeritus professor from the University of Virginia and his team installed GPS trackers on elephants of fourteen herds. After the comparison of satellite rainfall data with the movements of those elephants whose collars were installed with GPS trackers, they discovered the elephants were moving to storms which were astonishingly far away. In some cases, several widely dispersed herds could start to converge on a storm at the same time.

Although scientists were not quite sure how the elephants know where the rain fell, they said that rain-system could produce infrasound, which was capable of travel at long distances and being identified by elephants. That might be the cause of the changes in movement. What they were not certain was that the sound would come from thunder, or drum on the ground.

By using infrasound, whose frequencies was so low that they were not audible to humans, elephants were able to communicate over large distances. Through the study of their hearing and pressure waves from thunderstorms, it was found that elephants were capable of detect the noises which was 100km away at least. But, it was still to be confirmed that whether the elephants would be able to identify where the sound came from, even if they could tell that it was occurring.

It has puzzled the researchers that sometimes elephants changed direction to go for rain the day it fell, but in some cases, it would take as long as 20 days for them to work out a new course. In other instances, they would change their path 7-12 days before the rain, and it seemed that elephants got some forewarning of the direction they should be moving, so they should choose the direction with mysterious accuracy.

Amazingly, Garstang has showed evidence from his previous study that elephants were successful in being responsive to the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 before it really happened.

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