Sounds Give Researchers Clues To Elephants

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The Central African Republic is the setting for the latest installment in the "Wild Sounds" series. Katy Payne is a biologist at Cornell University who has spent more than two decades interpreting the sounds elephants make. The ones you'll hear today, were recorded from a raised platform built in a part of the forest called a bai.


Now lets go from art produced in Indonesia to the Central African Republic, which is where well be taken by our Wild Sounds series. Were going to listen to forest elephants. Our guide is Katy Payne, a biologist at Cornell University. Shes spent over two decades interpreting the sounds that elephants make. The ones youre going to hear today were recorded from a raised platform built in a part of the forest called bai.

Ms. KATY PAYNE (Biologist, Cornell University): Bai is a forest clearing made mostly by elephants. Its an elephant city, really. Elephants come from all directions in order to dig holes and suck up minerals from them. And sometimes there are as many as 100 at once, particularly at night.

Ms. PAYNE: We were trying to design a way of using sounds to figure out how many elephants are present and what theyre up to. When they come into the clearing they come in by twos and threes. The males mostly separate, the females mostly in groups with their calves, their mothers, their aunts, their great aunts, their grandmothers - that sort of a matriarchal grouping.

(Soundbite of elephant)

Ms. PAYNE: Thats an elephant with her trunk down in a well that shes dug getting some water in the end of the trunk.

(Soundbite of elephant)

Ms. PAYNE: Splashing it out, snorting, almost sneeze or cough.

(Soundbite of elephant trumpeting)

Ms. PAYNE: Thats a calf going ahooga. We called that call the ahooga and only juveniles make that call. They usually make it when theyre being weaned and theyre complaining, theyre protesting.

(Soundbite of elephant trumpeting)

Ms. PAYNE: They want the mother to give them milk.

(Soundbite of elephant trumpeting)

Ms. PAYNE: I think its mom, oh mom, where are you?

(Soundbite of elephant trumpeting)

Ms. PAYNE: And then Im lost, Im lost, where are you, where are you?

(Soundbite of elephant trumpeting)

Ms. PAYNE: All of these are modulated by emotion. When we give a slide show or show people what these elephants look like, at the end we turn off the lights and say, now just listen. And when we turn the lights back on tears are flowing down peoples cheeks.

(Soundbite of elephant)

Ms. PAYNE: Theyre endangered by poaching. And thats sad to say, when we make long recordings, we also pick up gun shots.

INSKEEP: Those elephant sounds are from the Cornell University laboratory of ornithology and were recorded by Bill McQuay(ph). NPRs Christopher Joyce dug up our Wild Sounds and you can find out more about the series at

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of music)

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