Why Are Elephant Ears So Big? And Other Pachyderm Questions

Research scientist Joseph Soltis answers your elephant-related queries.

Joseph Soltis, a research scientist at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, recently chatted with SciFri about the “words” that African elephants use to communicate. Below, Soltis has addressed a few of your pachyderm questions:

How do researchers keep bias towards human languages out of the study of elephant languages? Do a linguistics study as if the elephants were human?—@CyberResearchUS

You always have to be careful not to freely ascribe human-like capabilities to animals without evidence. For language, this is especially important. We [humans] can make a simple distinction between sentences with lots of words strung together following grammatical rules and a simple vocabulary of individual words. There is no evidence that elephants make sentences with grammatical structure. However, the different rumble alarms for bees and humans are similar to human words since they involve vowel-like changes. But even here we need to be careful, because we don’t know if elephants are thinking in the same way we do. For example, when we hear the word “bee,” we picture one in our mind.

How big is the elephant’s lexicon estimated to be? Do different herds have different dialects? Is pachylanguage passed down or innate?—@writermonk

For the alarm calls, we have just two so far (bees and humans), but they may well have other ones, such as for lions. Other aspects of elephant vocal communication that are pretty well developed are the “contact calls” and “mating calls.” When closely bonded females (like sisters) are far apart, they use long-distance rumbles to contact each other and reunite. Also, when males and females are ready to mate, they make rumbles that attract each other. Elephants also express emotion in their voices and have individually distinctive voices. So there is a lot going on and much more to learn.

Related Segment

Elephants Use Different ‘Words’ to Signal Danger

Question from my eight-year-old: Why are elephant ears so large?—@Shana_Johnson

Elephants do many different things with their big ears. One thing is that they can cool themselves down when they are hot. The blood flowing through the ears is close to the outside of the elephant body, and heat can be released as they flap them about. Some scientists also think that the big ears may funnel sound into their inner ear for better hearing. Elephants can also use their big ears to make threats. When they spread them out wide, elephants look even bigger than they already are, and they can use this posture to threaten other elephants or other animals.

*Please note that the answers to the first two questions are applicable to African elephants, whereas the last answer goes for all elephants. 

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Julie Leibach is a freelance science journalist and the former managing editor of online content for Science Friday.

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