What an Elephant Can Hear

In my previous emails we have discussed hummingbirds who can see colors that humans can’t, bumblebees who detect electrical charges, and sea turtles’ ability to perceive magnetic fields. My cat has dubbed this series, “The Many Ways Humans Are Inferior.” Today we will hear about elephants and infrasound — soundwaves with frequencies below the lower limit of human hearing.

Humans perceive frequency of sound waves as pitch. Frequency is measured in Hertz, named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, a lovely German name. Mr. Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves and the Great German Elephant. This is the only elephant known to exist in the wild outside of Africa and Asia. When Mr. Hertz found the German elephant, she was listening to some extremely low frequency sound waves at a club in Berlin.  

Humans can hear sound frequencies between 20 and 16,000 Hertz (Hz). Elephants can hear and produce frequencies below 20 Hz. They use these extremely low-pitched sounds to communicate with other elephants miles away. Other animals that use infrasonic calls include whales, rhinos, giraffes, and alligators.

If all these animals use their infrasonic super powers to gang up on humans, we’re screwed.

Infrasound is also produced by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, avalanches, and the calving of icebergs. Coincidentally, elephants are also referred to with bovine nomenclature. A male elephant is a bull. A female is a cow. A baby elephant is a calf. The calving of an iceberg happens when an elephant dances to a German drinking song on an iceberg. The force causes a piece of the iceberg to break off and fall into the sea.

I traveled to an iceberg in Berlin to interview one of the female elephants about sound. I used a bit of German leftover from my studies in college.

Me: Guten Tag, Frau Elephant! (Hello, Ms. Elephant!)

Frau Elephant: Hello, Human.

Me: Can you tell me what it’s like to hear sounds below 20 Hertz?

Frau Elephant: [Ms. Elephant has opened her mouth. Um. Her mouth is still open.]

Me: I’m sorry, Frau Elephant, but I can’t hear you.

Frau Elephant: Yes, I know. That rumble was 16 Hz. I could hear it and so could any elephant within thirty miles, but you couldn’t because you’re human. Sorry, just a little elephant humor at your expense.

Me: I hear that whales, rhinos, giraffes, and alligators can also hear your ultra-low-pitched sounds. Did any German rhinos, giraffes, or alligators hear you?

Frau Elephant: Yes, they heard me, but they don’t speak Elephant, so they don’t understand what I said.

Me: What did you say?

Frau Elephant: “When will Americans consider a parliamentary form of government so they don’t have to spend a whole year on a presidential campaign?”                                                             

Me: Speaking of government, do humans need to worry about whales, rhinos, giraffes, alligators, and elephants forming a coalition and attacking humans?

Frau Elephant: Whales? Never. They are peace-loving and just want to swim. Giraffes are so chatty and flaky –

Me: Wait – I’ve never heard a giraffe make a sound . . . oh, is that because of the low frequency thing?

Frau Elephant: You catch on quick. The giraffes could never stop talking long enough to organize and attack humans. Rhino horn is a human aphrodisiac, so they keep their distance from you. Don’t want to take any chances that y’all might saw off a horn. Now the alligators? Stay away from them. I’ve heard them rumble some nasty things about humans.

Me: Why? What did we ever do to them?

Frau Elephant: Ever heard of an alligator purse? Or boots?

Me: Oh. Got it. Do you think elephants are superior to humans because of your hearing?

Frau Elephant: Yes. And because of our size. And the sheer beauty of our floppy ears. To say nothing of our versatile trunks. We’re superior, but we’re not arrogant. That’s your cat’s territory.

Me: You make a good point. Thank you, ma’am, for your time. Please do what you can to keep the alligators away from humans. So long.


My cat and I hope you have enjoyed this week’s installment of The Many Ways Humans Are Inferior. Next week will bring the final chapter: Snakes and Their Views on Constitutional Monarchy.

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