Good Vibrations: Oxford Researchers Study the Beat of Elephants' Feet

The University’s scientists are monitoring elephant behaviour through the vibrations they create

By Jonathan Manning
Published 12 May 2018, 20:57 BST
Scientists are using geophones to track the tremors created by elephants. Image by Simon Greenwood, Unsplash
Scientists are using geophones to track the tremors created by elephants. Image by Simon Greenwood, Unsplash
Photograph by Simon Greenwood, Unsplash

Researchers have developed an innovative way of classifying elephant behaviours by monitoring the tremors that their movements send through the ground.

Deploying cutting-edge technology, the scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology and Earth Sciences will be able to study elephants when they are out of sight, and could provide real-time information on poaching threats.

Elephants create seismic vibrations through their footfall and through ‘rumbles’, their low-frequency vibrations. These are picked up by small sensors, called geophones.

The geophones can distinguish the tremors made by elephants from those generated by cars, people, planes and other sources.

The researchers believe that elephants use the tremors to know the whereabouts of the rest of the herd, over distances of several kilometres, when they are out of earshot.

Elephants can detect the tremors and vibrations of the rest of the herd from a distance of several kilometres.
Photograph by Matthew Cramblett, Unsplash

Dr Beth Mortimer of the Universities of Oxford and Bristol said, “Vibration detection is a forgotten sense in the study of many animals, but is particularly important for elephants.”

But she is concerned that the impact of human noise will destroy the opportunity for elephants to communicate via vibrations.

“The impact of other noise on this mode of communication mode is particularly worrying given the increased levels of human-generated seismic vibrations in remote locations,” said Dr Mortimer.

The research was carried out in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve in conjunction with Save The Elephants, whose CEO, Frank Pope, said, “Legends and folklore have long spoken about the way elephants can not only communicate across long distances, but also detect other events that shake the ground, like far-off thunder. This study marks a new phase in trying to understand the nature of the vibrations elephants produce and how they might be used by elephants themselves. Along the way it is opening our eyes to the challenges posed by human-generated noise in an increasingly crowded landscape.”


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