A research associate in the Stanford University School of Medicine, O'Connell-Rodwell has come to one of Africa's premiere wildlife sanctuaries to explore the mysterious and complex world of elephant communication. She and her colleagues are part of a scientific revolution that began nearly two decades ago with the stunning revelation that elephants communicate over long distances using low-pitched sounds that are barely audible to humans.
In 1997, O'Connell-Rodwell took this discovery in a bold, new direction by proposing that low-frequency calls also generate powerful vibrations in the ground--seismic signals that elephants can feel, and even interpret, via their sensitive trunks and feet.
Scientists have long known that seismic communication is common in small animals, including spiders, scorpions, insects and a few vertebrate species, such as white-lipped frogs, kangaroo rats and golden moles. Seismic sensitivity also has been observed in elephant seals--huge marine mammals not related to elephants.
But O'Connell-Rodwell was the first to suggest that a large land animal is capable of sending and receiving vibrational messages. "A lot of research has been done showing that small animals use seismic signals to find mates, locate prey and establish territories," she notes. "But there have only been a few studies focusing on the ability of large mammals to communicate through the ground."
Her insights generated international media attention after the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami disaster in Asia, following reports that trained elephants in Thailand had become agitated and fled to higher ground before the devastating wave struck, thus saving their own lives a