Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

Elephant Infrasound, Part One

Etosha Male photograph by Cheryl Merrill
Etosha Male
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

An excerpt from my book:

In 1984 whale researcher Katy Payne spent a week with eleven elephants at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, 170 miles south from my Pacific Northwest home. An acoustic biologist with fifteen years of experience studying the long and complex calls of whales, she was curious as to the kinds of sounds elephants make. Every waking hour of that week she listened and watched the elephants’ behavior at the zoo. She noticed that certain keepers elicited a positive response from the elephants, an intangible “thrill” in the air, like the rolling vibrations of thunder right before you hear them.

On her way back to Cornell University, while she thought about her observations, the throbbing of the airplane reminded her of a pipe organ she once heard. During a performance of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew, a shuddering filled the air as bass notes from the great pipes descended in a deep scale until sound disappeared – but the air still throbbed. Those same, strong, vibrations-without-sound had filled the air around the elephants in Oregon. Could they be communicating with infrasound, like whales?

Four months later, back at the zoo, Payne and fellow researcher Bill Langbauer set their recording equipment to its slowest speed. They mapped the elephants’ movements and timed changes in their behavior with the recordings. Working around the clock for an entire month, they recorded what sounded like snores, chirps, barks, rumbles and even moments of absolute silence.

Back at Cornell, the first tape Payne selected to review was during a time of silence, when there was a “thrill” in the air as a female elephant faced a concrete wall and a male elephant faced the same wall in an adjoining enclosure. The elephants were just three feet apart, but completely separated. Running the tape at ten times its normal speed, the researchers heard sounds emerge from silence – elephants carrying on an extensive conversation in infrasound, even when they couldn’t see each other.

To test this new theory of elephant communication, The Cornell research team rigged a double-blind experiment in Africa. An observation tower near a waterhole at Etosha National Park in Namibia was outfitted with video cameras and microphones. Miles from the waterhole, a mobile van roamed through the bush outfitted with broadcast speakers and tape recordings. The timing, location and content of the broadcasts were unknown to the observers at the tower.

One hot, dry afternoon, two male elephants, Mohammed and Hannibal, picked their way through the white calcareous rocks around the waterhole and paused for a drink. As soon as the two bulls arrived, the tower radioed the van. Selected at random, infrasonic estrous calls of a female elephant from Kenya were broadcast to the two bachelors in Namibia.

A female elephant needs to advertise as far and as wide as she can, since she is receptive to males for just a few days every estrus cycle. She repeats her calls over and over for up to forty-five minutes at a time. The calls can be heard for nineteen square miles – but only by other elephants.

Just seconds after the sound was sent, Mohammed and Hannibal froze, spread their ears and lifted their heads – twisting them side-to-side like scanning radar. Within two minutes the bulls set off. Half an hour later the pair strode past the van, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Posted in Africa, Nature, Photography, Travel

Whoooosh-Thwack! Whooooosh-Thwack!

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

A selection from my book in progress:

As she walks, Morula’s ears slap flatly against her shoulders, Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whoooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Elephant air-conditioning.

Morula produces enough heat to warm a small house. She is also pachy-dermed, thick-skinned. Some of her blood vessels are as deep as one-and-a-half inches under her skin’s surface. Since she doesn’t have sweat glands, her ears act like giant heat exchangers, regulating her body temperature. As air moves over the huge network of swollen arteries covering each ear, Morula’s blood cools as much as nine degrees before it returns to her body. When spread open, her ears increase her body size by roughly twenty square feet, a huge area for the process of thermoregulation.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

I take a photograph of her ear in mid-flap. Where Morula’s ear attaches to her shoulder, wrinkles give way to swollen arteries pumping five gallons of blood per minute across the surface of her ears. The pattern of those arteries is as unique as a fingerprint and often used to identify individual elephants.

Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . . Whooosh, thwack . . .

The breeze she creates dies before it reaches me. I take off my cap and fan my own neck.

My teeny, itsy ears are built somewhat the same as hers are, with an upper rim of cartilage and a fleshy, lower lobe. But I don’t have an auriculo-occipitalis, an ear muscle the size of a weightlifter’s bicep. I can’t flap my ears. I can’t even wiggle them.

Posted in Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel

Trunk

photograph by Cheryl Merrill
photograph by Cheryl Merrill

Funky jazzy trombone trunk.       Snaking snorkeling vacuuming trunk.       Showerhead.       Backhoe.       Slinky.       Shimmying sucking swigging trunk.       Empty pipe.       Water gun.       Periscope.       Plucking siphoning tenacious trunk.       Kazoo.       Tweezers.       Tentacle.       Affectionate handshaking pickpocket trunk.       Python.       Air hose.       Question mark.       Whistling snorting sneezing trunk.

 

Breathtaking trunk.

 

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

A Sea of Elephants

sea of elephants

Gray wave after gray wave surges out of the bush in small herds of twenty or less, first one group, now another, flooding the huge hollow that contains a waterhole.  Dust rises in the air, a potent blend of manure, dried grass and sand.  The backwash swells in our direction.  Soon a sea of elephants surrounds us.  We’re submerged in a roiling world of noise.  Snorts, grumbles, trumpets, growling bellies and gargantuan belches resound.  Some of the vibrations are too low to hear, but I feel them as they pass through my body, reverberate in my chest cavity, squeeze my heart.  Eye after eye inspects us as eddies of elephants swirl past.  An old world laps at the foot of our memories, extinguishes centuries of communal fires.  The ropes that tether us loosen.  We slip away from the familiar shore and set off towards unimaginable ways of being.  We look around with wild hearts.  We have become part of the herd.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography

The Giant Beside Us

One long hot afternoon at a waterhole in the Savuti area of Botswana:

Only a few yards from our vehicle, a single-cylinder water pump alternately chugs and sputters, drawing water from beneath the sand and sending spurts through a pipe to a square trough.  This artificial waterhole keeps the bachelor elephants close by, waiting for spring rains and the return of female breeding herds.

The steady sound of the pump, chug-sputter, chug-sputter, chug-sputter lull my eyes closed.  They open, close, open half-lidded, close again.

 “Here he comes,” someone whispers and my eyes flick open as a huge bull strolls past.  I pick up my camera.

Savuti male b&wI focus on his great head, nodding downward with each step, as he trudges past.  A thirsty pilgrim in a parched land, his trek to water is nearly finished.  He’s headed straight to the trough; the clicking and whirring of our cameras doesn’t alter his gait.

His enormous tusk splays out sideways.  It’s easily four feet long, stained and chipped on the end.  It grows out, rather than down and up – his tusks made him a much wider elephant than he really is.

Mid-drink, he curls his trunk into his mouth; head tilted back, eyes closed.  He makes gargling sounds as he drinks.  Extending his trunk down into the water, he blows bubbles.  Then he curls his trunk again and again to hose several gallons at a time down his throat.  Each swallow contains the taste of dung, samplings from all the animals that used this waterhole – zebra, wildebeest, warthog, ostrich, hyena and the occasional furtive flavor of lion.

I try to imagine the bouquet garni of the water and how its myriad fragrances might seep into the crevices of an elephant’s mind, form pools of scent they recognize, year after year, the liquid memory of Africa.  Perhaps this old bull is memorizing the stories in that trough, paragraphs of taste and smell, twists of plot and character and fate.

Finished drinking, he turns around and heads back to where our vehicle is parked, stopping just twenty feet away.  His skin is the color of seasoned cast iron.  The waterline on his body rises just past his belly.  Spatters of mud stain his ears and back.

After several long minutes, his eyelids droop and his mouth slackens.  Under the hot sun he falls asleep, lulled perhaps by the narcotic of a long, slow drink.  The tip of his trunk coils like a magic rope on the ground.  He sleeps with his weight on three legs, resting a hind leg, occasionally rocking back on it as if he’s dreaming of his trek.  Drool from the end of his trunk slowly seeps into the sand.

Ellie asleep b&wI match my breathing with his, and drowse, sedated by the sun.

The giant beside us rumbles soft snores in his sleep.  I wonder if he is aware of the humans next to him, nodding their heads, also falling asleep.  Other bachelors shuffle by quietly on their way to and from the waterhole, as if they don’t want to wake us.

Tiny paws of wind skitter across my arms; keep me half-awake.  But for one long moment, I almost entered his dreams.

Posted in Elephants, Nonfiction, Zoos

Extreme Happiness

In the spring of 1996, right before my first trip to Africa, I participated in a “behind-the-scenes” tour at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.  During the tour, we were allowed into the close contact area of the elephant barn, an area separated from the zoo’s three elephants by strong metal bars.  One by one, they were brought forward by their handler, and we fed them carrots from a 50-pound bag.

One of the elephants, Chai, was extremely interested in my sister’s leather coat, gently squeezing it at the shoulder, inhaling each square inch down to my sister’s elbow, as if asking, What animal is this?  My brother-in-law, who is huge by human standards, was especially fascinating in his leather coat.  Sniff.  Squeeze.  And who are you?

Trunk length from an elephant for the very first time, I was mesmerized by the meditative intelligence in her eyes.

Chai rumbled, the sound reverberating throughout the barn.

We hummed back at her, sang a low, wordless song, my brother-in-law’s voice especially deep and loud.  She turned her head from side to side, as if trying to understand our oscillating meaning.  Then the air around us condensed, washed over us in waves, pulsated just below our range of hearing.  It was my first experience with infrasound, vibrations I could feel in my chest, vibrations my ears would never hear.

Chai slowly stretched out her trunk to accept a carrot from my sister, stuffed it into her cheeks and then slowly reached out for another.  When her cheeks were as stuffed as a chipmunk’s, her handler said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and tapped her alternately above each knee with an ankus, an elephant hook.  She backed up, swinging her head from side to side.

In 1980, when Chai was only a year old, she was separated from her mother and flown to Seattle by Thai Airways to commemorate the delivery of the first Boeing 747 to Thailand.  She was only sixteen when I met her.  Two years after our behind-the-scenes tour, Chai was shipped to Missouri to be bred to a bull named Onyx.  By then several artificial insemination attempts had already failed to impregnate her.

Photo by Brian Hawk. Woodland Park Zoo
Photo by Brian Hawk. Woodland Park Zoo

After three days and 2,100 miles in a truck, she arrived at the Dickerson Park Zoo.  On the third day after her arrival, the Dickerson Zoo’s staff beat her for two-and-a-half hours because she would not respond to their commands.  (The zoo was later fined $5000.)  Chai lost 1,000 pounds in the twelve months she was in Missouri.

Finally pregnant, she was trucked back to Seattle.  Twenty-two months later, in 2000, she gave birth to a female calf.  The naming contest for the new zoo resident gathered 16,000 entries.  The Thai name selected, Hansa (pronounced HUN-suh), means “Extreme Happiness.”  Once the calf was on view attendance at the zoo doubled and Chai proved to be a very capable mother.

photo by Benjamin Benschnieder, Seattle Times
photo by Benjamin Benschnieder, Seattle Times

But in June of 2007, Hansa died, infected with a new strain of elephant herpes – a highly communicable virus that had already claimed the lives of forty percent of young Asian calves in zoos.  Hansa made a lot of money for Woodland Park, so Chai has been artificially inseminated again and again – a total of 112 times – resulting in just one other pregnancy and the miscarriage of that calf.

Day after day, Chai listens to hordes and choruses of unfamiliar human noises.  She listens and moves slowly back and forth in her cage.  Perhaps she mourns the loss of her Extreme Happiness.  Perhaps after awhile it all blurs, like the background hum of an engine in flight.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Nonfiction, Photography, Travel, Writing

How Much of the World Are We Missing?

Listening, really listening.
Listening, really listening.

 

Just at the edge of darkness, where the light of our fire does not penetrate, an elephant thunders by, trumpeting the whole way, like a locomotive off track in a dry forest, a classic illustration of the Doppler Effect, sound that condenses, rises in pitch, crescendos, blows by, drops pitch, recedes. 

We lift our heads in surprise.  Waves of sound undulate away from us, kin to ripples on a pond.  We use pulsed sound waves, Doppler Radar, to see rain, to know when we should run for cover.  There is no such radar for an incoming elephant.

Eventually his outrage is extinguished in our ears, but elephants a mile away are just beginning to hear it.  Resonance fills the night air around us, yet we are deaf to it, to the sounds just below our range of hearing.

How much of the world are we missing, circle upon circle?  Perhaps instead of placing ourselves at the center we should move to the edges where our skills are low and our learning curve high.  We should extinguish our fire and sit in the darkness listening, really listening.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Morula, Nonfiction, Photography, Pleistocene

Footprints

Footprints

Our feet anchor us to the ground.  Just as my Pleistocene ancestors could read the tracks of mastodons, so I now gaze down at an elephant’s prints in the dust.  Her back feet are oval and her front feet round.  City slicker that I am, even I can tell the direction she is going.

 The sand beneath our feet  is the color of a lion’s coat, studded with brittle leaf litter.  Morula walks through it without making a sound.  Shock-absorbing pads on the soles of her feet cushion each footstep, smother crushed leaves.

I step on a dry leaf and it crackles into powder.

The brand name of my boots imprints within the outline of my soles; a clever advertisement made with each step.  All of my weight concentrates in two small points of contact with the earth, so I make deeper impressions than Morula’s footprints.  Each one of my steps applies more pressure per square inch; Morula’s weight spreads over four large footpads the size of a medium pizza pan.

She can step on a snake and not kill it.

Morula lifts her foot and grains of sand roll down slope into the crater of her footprint.

Following two paths, the one beneath her feet and the one in her mind, Morula strolls on.  Dust rises, a half shadow that marks her passage, before it collapses again to the ground.

There is a before and an after to each moment of our lives, paths we follow and paths we do not.

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Travel

The Most Useful Appendage That Ever Evolved

An excerpt from my book-in-progress:

Trunk in face

 

The tip of Jabu’s trunk hovers in front of my eyes, wet with mucous, dotted with sand, nostril hairs visible.

He blows into my face, gently.  I blow back, gently.  We exchange breath, distillations of our own personal atmospheres, particle-swarms of changed, exchanged air, brewed though all the cells of our bodies.

My lungs fill with the fragrance of crushed leaves, with saproots and spearmint-scented bark, all lightly fermented.  I think of the stagnant air that surrounds my daily life, air that is conditioned, filtered, deodorized, air that is bland.  Elephant’s breath is said to cure headaches.  And it just might, if I had one.

Jabu’s trunk tip investigates my right boot tip.  The scents I’ve picked up while walking tumble up two seven-foot-long nostrils – nostrils surrounded by nerves, arteries, veins and a staggering array of longitudinal and transverse muscles, the world’s biggest, longest and certainly most flexible schnozz.

A trunk is the most useful appendage that ever evolved.  Imagine having an arm in place of your nose, an arm long enough to reach to the top of a tree, and pluck a single leaf from its crown.  Imagine having a nose with which you could rip, tear, excavate, whack, and blow bubbles.  You could steal with your nose, suck on it, squeal, swat, poke and siphon with it.  You could take a shower, or reach over your shoulder and scratch your back with it.  You could even arm wrestle with your nose.

He chuffs, a hot gust of air directed at my feet.  Wet mist covers one boot top momentarily, then evaporates.

 

Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Travel

Trunk Show

Morula trunk underside b&w

 

Funky jazzy trombone trunk.  Snaking snorkeling vacuuming trunk.  Showerhead.  Backhoe.  Slinky.  Shimmying sucking swigging trunk.  Empty pipe.  Water gun.  Periscope.  Plucking siphoning tenacious trunk.  Kazoo.  Tweezers.  Tentacle.  Affectionate handshaking pickpocket trunk.  Python.  Air hose.  Question mark.  Whistling snorting sneezing trunk.

 

Breathtaking

trunk.