Elephants sing low the same way humans do

Aug 03, 2012 by Lin Edwards report
elephant
African Bush Elephant in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania. Taken by Oliver Wright, via Wikipedia.

(Phys.org) -- Mammals produce sounds in two ways, either via the flow of air over vocal folds (vocal chords), as in humans and many other mammals, or via active muscular contractions as in the cat’s purr. Until now no one has been sure how elephants produce their lowest tones, but a new study has solved the mystery.

African elephants produce "infrasounds," which are low-frequency (<20 Hz) vocalizations capable of travelling up to 10 kilometers. Their frequency is usually too low for them to be audible to the human ear.

A new study by an international team of voice scientists and biologists has cleared up the mystery of how these infrasounds are produced. The researchers studied the excised larynx of an elephant that had died of natural causes and tried to use it to create infrasounds in the laboratory.

The study, led by voice scientist Christian Herbst of the University of Vienna, Austria, aimed to settle the long-standing question of whether elephants make infrasounds in the same way that humans and many other mammals produce sounds, by air flowing across the to create vibrations, or through active contractions of the muscles.

Scientists can study the process in humans by inserting cameras into the larynx and observing what happens when different sounds are made, but this method is not possible in living animals such as elephants.

The research team excised the larynx within a few hours of the elephant’s death in a Berlin zoo, and they froze it and transported it to the University of Vienna’s Department of Cognitive Biology laboratory. They tested the larynx by adjusting the vocal folds to a position used for vocalizations (called a phonatory position) and blowing streams of humidified warm air through it to simulate the action of the elephant’s lungs. The larynx produced infrasounds virtually indistinguishable from those produced by living elephants.

The results demonstrated that muscular activity is not required to produce infrasounds, and that they are produced by the flow of air, a type of vocalization known as myoelastic-aerodynamic or flow-driven mode. If elephants produced infrasounds through active , in the same way as a cat’s purr is produced, the larynx would not have produced the sounds with the brain absent. The research does not, however, prove that never use active muscular contractions to produce any sounds.

Myoelastic aerodynamic vocalization is the method used in humans (producing frequencies of about 50 to 7,000 Hz) and many other , including echo-locating bats (100,000 Hz or higher). The researchers also found other features of the elephant larynx that matched “nonlinear phenomena” in other species, such as screaming in humans. In nonlinear vocalizations the vibration is chaotic rather than periodic.

The paper was published on 3rd August in Science.

Explore further: Dogs get especially jealous of other dogs, study finds

More information: How Low Can You Go? Physical Production Mechanism of Elephant Infrasonic Vocalizations, Science, 3 August 2012: Vol. 337 no. 6094 pp. 595-599. DOI: 10.1126/science.1219712

ABSTRACT
Elephants can communicate using sounds below the range of human hearing (“infrasounds” below 20 hertz). It is commonly speculated that these vocalizations are produced in the larynx, either by neurally controlled muscle twitching (as in cat purring) or by flow-induced self-sustained vibrations of the vocal folds (as in human speech and song). We used direct high-speed video observations of an excised elephant larynx to demonstrate flow-induced self-sustained vocal fold vibration in the absence of any neural signals, thus excluding the need for any “purring” mechanism. The observed physical principles of voice production apply to a wide variety of mammals, extending across a remarkably large range of fundamental frequencies and body sizes, spanning more than five orders of magnitude.

Related Stories

Researchers solve mystery of long elephant pregnancy

Jun 21, 2012

(Phys.org) -- For years biologists have puzzled over how it is that elephants are able to maintain such long pregnancies, which typically run to nearly two years. While many theories have been tossed around, ...

House cats know what they want and how to get it from you

Jul 13, 2009

Anyone who has ever had cats knows how difficult it can be to get them to do anything they don't already want to do. But it seems that the house cats themselves have had distinctly less trouble getting humans ...

Goat kids can develop accents

Feb 15, 2012

The ability to change vocal sounds (vocal plasticity) and develop an accent is potentially far more widespread in mammals than previously believed, according to new research on goats from Queen Mary, University ...

Elephants ready to rumble at sound of bees (w/ Video)

Apr 26, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- For the first time elephants have been found to produce an alarm call associated with the threat of bees, and have been shown to retreat when a recording of the call is played even when there ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

DarkHorse66
5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2012
Compare with this:
http://phys.org/n...tml#nRlv
Anything look familiar?
I know that it is good to recycle, but so soon?
Or is it the same elephant, now dead and de-larynxed?
;)
Cheers, DH66