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Earthquake-Monitoring Technology May Help Protect Elephants from Poachers

A new study suggests that tracking the distinct seismic vibrations generated by elephants could help conservationists know if trouble is afoot

Visualized vibrations (Robbie Labanowski)
smithsonian.com

To communicate with one another, elephants rely on a complex system of vocal calls, subtle gestures and, as research over the years has shown, seismic vibrations. Pachyderms can detect stomps and trumpets that rumble through the ground, allowing them to transmit information about impending threats across long distances. As Douglas Quenqua of the New York Times reports, a new study published in Current Biology suggests that tracking these seismic vibrations can also help alert conservationists when danger is afoot.

A team of researchers recently measured the “seismic signatures” of various elephant activities—like walking and snorting—using tools that were developed to monitor earthquakes. The scientists placed geophones, which convert ground vibrations into electronic signals, near the stomping grounds of wild elephants in Kenya. According to Kate Wheeling of Pacific Standard, the team then used computer models to create visual depictions of the vibrations, and found that elephant behaviors like walking, running and vocalizing create distinct patterns. But they were particularly surprised by how far these vibrations could travel.

"We found that the forces generated through elephant calls were comparable to the forces generated by a fast elephant walk,” Beth Mortimer, a biologist at the University of Oxford and the University of Bristol and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This means that elephant calls can travel significant distances through the ground and, in favorable conditions, further than the distance that calls travel through the air.”

Certain factors—like terrain type and human-generated noise—dampened the strength of the vibrations. But under optimal conditions, the team was able to detect and distinguish vibrations from close to four miles away. An elephant’s trumpet, by contrast, can only travel two miles through the air, according Quenqua.

The team’s research not only supports previous studies showing that elephants use ground signals to communicate from afar, but also suggests that earthquake-monitoring technology could be deployed by conservationists.

Tens of thousands of elephants have been poached for their ivory, decimating their populations in Africa. Elephants run and cry out when faced with threats, which, as the new study has shown, generates unique seismic patterns. With more research, the study authors posit, experts may one day be able to implement seismic monitoring systems that will let conservationists pick up on signs of trouble—and perhaps help them protect elephants from poachers.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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