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September 2009: The Deep Emotional Life of Elephants

September 2009

BabyElephant.jpgThe deep emotional life of elephants

What parent doesn’t love to see the wonder in the eyes of their children when they encounter an elephant for the first time at the zoo, or see them performing tricks at a traveling circus? [Note: this is not a moral commentary on the legitimate criticism of elephants in zoo’s or circuses.] When a baby elephant is born, entire human communities celebrate the birth as well as entire herds of elephants, but more on that later. It is truly a delight to see a crowd of children twitching with joy when they see a baby elephant for the first time. Just last week in my home of Portland, crowds of children got to watch a one-year-old calf celebrate her birthday with a cake made of brown bread, sweet potato frosting and a carrot for a candle.

If you are sensitive (and lucky) enough to get near a mama elephant and her calf, sometimes you can feel a deep rumbling along your spine. It is not really audible to the ear. Between 14 and 35 hertz it is felt more than heard. This rumbling, however, is deeply comforting to the baby calf and is one of the ways that its mother stays in touch with it. Thunderstorms also send out sound waves that a herd of elephants can sense. As the plant life returns and sends out pollen, the elephants can smell it, even from 100 miles away. They will begin walking towards it at a pace of 2 to 4 miles an hour and they the time they arrive at the site of the rain, the plants are lush with growth. Since an elephant has to eat nearly 300 pounds a day, the time can be perfect.

You see, elephants aren’t lead by the fastest, strongest or most dominate male, like a herd of horses, a pride of lions or a harem of llamas. Elephant herds are instead, led by the oldest female, a grand matriarch of perhaps 60 years of age, whose great memory is able to remember water sources for decades and to correlate them to unique weather conditions and changes. During a drought this might be a dried river bed that she visited 20 years before where water is only a few digs of her tusks away. This database of knowledge is essential for survival, because an elephant needs to drink 15 to 20 gallons of water a day. The matriarch may know the landscape of around 600 square miles. She navigates, using her proverbial great memory, by recognizing landforms.

The grandmother elephant learned from her grandmothers who learned from her grandmothers in a legacy that goes back for generations; walking the same routes and wearing a path in the forest or plains know as ‘elephant’ roads. She will lead the herd into caves where they lick the salt that has leached from the rainwater onto the walls. When the grandmother elephant dies the next in line typically assumes the role of matriarch – usually her sisters or her oldest daughter. Sadly, over half of wild elephants die by age 15 from diseases, poachers or predators.

Adolescent male elephants, once they are weaned but not yet mature, will form ‘bull bands’. Once they reach maturity, the male elephants will live solitary lives as nomads.

Elephants communicate in very complex and nuanced ways using facial expressions, tummy rumbles, trunk calls, and ultra low infra-sounds. These rumbles, too low for humans to hear, allows the animals to communicate with each other even when they are a 1,000 yards apart. There are almost 30 different rumbles they use including a greeting, a lost call, an ‘I’m ready to mate’, a suckle rumble, or a ‘let’s move out’ alert. The more well-known trumpet sound comes from the trunk which an elephant will use like a wind instrument.

Elephants can also hear with their feet. The footsteps of another herd, even 30 miles away, vibrates through the ground and is detected through the feet, the vibration going up the leg bones into the skull where it is amplifies and channeled into the highly refined ossicles of the middle ear. The listening elephants will alternatively lift their feet, equivalent to us turning our heads to listen.

Elephants are highly social and touch using their tails, trunks, even the soles of their feet to establish social bonds. With wrinkly but highly sensitive skin, elephants love to slide against each other when taking mud baths. Mother elephants constantly touch their calves; reaching with her tail to make sure the calf is following, or snuggling with the calf when lying on her stomach or reassuringly wrapping her trunk around it and pulling it close just to touch.

Observers have also documented nearly 100 different positions of the body, head, ears and/or trunk, each combination indicating something specific to other elephants.  An elephant’s sense of smell is also highly developed. To follow a scent track, it will sweep it’s trunk across the path like a metal detector. If it needs to smell over greater distances, it will hold its trunk into the air and swivel it around like a periscope. Much like the elephants personality, the trunk is also very strong and very sensitive. It can be used to pick up a peanut, guided by the small hairs at the tip, or can be used to pull trees out of the ground. The elephant will suck water into its trunk and then spray it into it’s mouth or blow dust on it’s back to ward off biting flies. It can be used to pull up grass from the ground or leaves off of a tree.

Elephants will gestate for 22 months before giving birth to a 260 pound baby. Unceremoniously dropped to the ground, the calf quickly recovers and begins to nurse. The herd of females will often circle the newborn and trumpet in celebration (okay, that’s just a sweet piece of trivia). The mother will suckle for around six years before the calf is finally weaned – of course, by that time it is 2,200 pounds and mama is probably ready for a rest – only human parents take longer to raise a child to maturity. During that time, the entire herd helps in raising the calf, guarding it from danger, helping it across obstacles, and nudging it along the trail.

This intelligence, nurturing, loving aspect of elephants somehow inspires my soul, and reminds me that God also clearly loves the elephants. Sometimes as humans, we become so self-involved that we forget how the rich biodiversity of life on earth reveals the wisdom and goodness of God. I hope next time I stand in front of an elephant, I can hear it’s love rumble deep in my soul. Maybe, just maybe, there is a yet understood rumble - a song of praise to God.

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