Researchers are unlocking ‘mating pandemonium’ and other secrets of forest elephants


Science Friday, National Public Radio

Date Published
(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview at the link. Also see photos and video at link)
New audio and video recordings from Central Africa have revealed a loud and mysterious activity among forest elephants: “mating pandemonium.”
“After a mating event occurs — just when the male dismounts the female — suddenly a lot of vocalizations start happening,” says Peter Wrege, the director of The Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University. “Lots of roaring and rumbling and trumpeting going on. It’s just … pandemonium.”
Other elephants come rushing over, even the young ones, and “they’re all calling and sniffing the ground at the mating site, and things like that,” Wrege says.
All of those calls are just part of the din. Elephants use frequencies below the range of human hearing in a lot of their calls, so “we’re only hearing a part of what’s going on,” Wrege explains. “There are other rumbles happening that we can’t even hear without some kind of enhancement with a computer.”
There’s also video: In addition to the audio recordings, Wrege deployed a thermal, night-vision camera that, even in the pitch-black African darkness, allowed him and his team to capture images of the elephants’ activity.
Only one thing is missing: A reason for the loud display. Wrege says researchers don’t know exactly why the elephants do it. “We have some ideas about what may be going on,” Wrege says. “It could be that the female is advertising that she has just mated and that she’s fertile. Maybe she’s trying to attract other males from around. Or it may be a way that other individuals in the clearing can come in and find out something about the quality or the status of the mating pair.”
Researchers have known for a number of years that this phenomenon occurs among savannah elephants, Wrege says. Those are the ones you might see in nature documentaries, roaming the grassy African plains. He studies forest elephants, whose behavior is less well-documented and understood.
“[The elephants] don’t seem to want to come into the clearings during the day, but there is a lot of activity at night, and we know very little about what’s going on,” Wrege explains. But thanks to the study, they’re getting a better idea. “At least during the period of this study, there was much, much more mating going on at night than during the day. We didn’t know that [before now].”
Watching the animals interact at night may also help Wrege and other researchers like Andrea Turkalo, who has been studying these elephants for more than two decades, decipher the many different sounds elephants use to communicate with each other. They hope that better understanding the elephants will help strengthen conservation efforts — particularly in the fight against poaching, which in central Africa has reached epidemic proportions.
“The illegal ivory trade is really pounding these forest elephants. The combination of the thermal imaging and the recording lets us fit together what calls are going with what sorts of behaviors, so that if we record elsewhere in the forest around central Africa, we can interpret better what it is we’re hearing, and use that information to help with their conservation.”