When you hear Horton: What sound elephants make (the trunk is key)
If all you know about elephants is that they’re scared of mice and never forget, you’re in for a treat. Because a more scientific approach to elephantology (a made up word) yields some very cool facts. What sound does an elephant make? The one you probably know best is called a trumpet, but there are others, some that the human ear can’t even catch. And an elephant’s awesome trunk makes those ever-so-unique sounds and provides our pachyderm friends with other evolutionary advantages. Facts about elephant trunks and the sounds that come out of them could fill a semester’s worth of Elephant Studies classes, but here are a few of the most interesting:
The Multi-Purpose Elephant Sound
When an elephant sounds off, it will most likely be with a high-pitched, abrupt trumpet. Even elephants a few hours old can already push air through their trunks to vocalize this way. Why does an elephant trumpet? It’s basically a “Hear me roar!” kind of communication indicating an elephant is feeling peppy or frisky. But don’t assume that’s the emotion if an elephant is trumpeting as it bears down on you during a safari. The sound an elephant makes to express anger or surprise sounds just like the playful sound. (Isn’t that helpful?) And pachyderms of all ages may also signal that they’re lost by trumpeting.
When Only The Herd Needs To Know
When elephants just want to talk among themselves, they rumble. Like other mammals, elephants use their larynxes to make this low-frequency sound. (Note, though, that an elephant larynx, though around eight centimeters long, is eight times the size of a human’s.) And they produce the sound in much the same way a house cat uses its larynx to purr. Only, the sound is in proportion to an animal that can be 21 feet long and weighs upwards of 13,000 pounds. Beyond that, though, the sound an elephant makes when rumbling is not comparable to any other mammal. For one thing, elephants resort to low frequency when they want to keep a low profile. Sometimes humans or other animals can’t even hear the rumbling noises, but elephants from far away can pick them up without any enemies detecting the sounds or being able to predict the herd’s movements.
When Elephants Sound Off
Elephants really throw their whole selves into making a fascinating and effective range of vocalizations. All the sounds start with air flowing over a pachyderm’s vocal cords and producing the distinctive sound made by elephants. The elephants can alter this sound via their vocal cords or by using their trunks, which act as a portable echo chamber. An elephant also employes its mouth, nasal passages, and even tongue to shape vocal notes into rumbles, trumpets or even snorts. Just one call produced by an elephant may vary over a range of four octaves! And just like a contestant on The Voice, an elephant alters the frequency, resonance, and pitch using other parts of its body. It can get different effects by opening its mouth wide before trumpeting, for example, or holding it closed. Those ears aren’t just for show, either. An elephant will flap its ears for one set of sounds, or even raise and fold them for a different cry. The bones at the base of an elephant’s tongue are also looser than those of other mammals. This allows the larynx to move more freely and lets elephants really hit those low-frequency notes.
It may be that the elephant’s phenomenal memory also helps it to reproduce some of the most complicated and resonant sounds the species makes. And as for that fear of mice? If it only were true, maybe it would be a factor in creating those high-pitched warning noises.