Elephants can communicate using very low frequency sounds, with pitches below the range of human hearing. These low-frequency sounds, termed "infrasounds", can travel several kilometers, and provide elephants with a "private" communication channel that plays an important role in elephants' complex social life. Their frequencies are as low as the lowest notes of a pipe organ.
Although the sounds themselves have been studied for many years, it has remained unclear exactly how elephant infrasounds are made. One possibility, favored by some scientists, is that the elephants tense and relax the muscles in their larynx (or "voice box") for each pulse of sound. This mechanism, similar to cats purring, can produce sounds as low in pitch as desired, but the sounds produced are generally not very powerful.
The other possibility is that elephant infrasounds are produced like human speech or singing, but because the elephant larynx is so large, they are extremely low in frequency. Human humming is produced by vibrations of the vocal folds (also called "vocal cords"), which are set into vibration by a stream of air from the lungs, and don't require periodic muscle activity. By this hypothesis, elephant infrasounds result simply from very long vocal folds slapping together at a low rate, and don't require any periodic tensing of the laryngeal muscles.
To find out, researchers at the University of Vienna, led by voice scientist Christian Herbst and elephant communication expert Angela Stoeger, removed the larynx from an elephant (which died of natural causes), and brought it into the larynx laboratory of the Department of Cognitive Biology (headed by Tecumseh Fitch). By blowing a controlled stream of warm, humid air through the larynx (substituting for the elephants lungs), and manually placing the vocal folds into the "vocal" position, the scientists coaxed the vocal folds into periodic, low-frequency vibrations that match infrasounds in all detail
|Contact: Dr. Christian Herbst|
University of Vienna