Do Asian elephant calls have grammar-like elements? Help crowd funding this study!

Asian elephant mother and calf

Asian elephant mother and calf

Mickey Pardo is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He has a great interest in animal communication and has set up a fascinating study in which he is going to analyze the calls of wild Asian elephants in the Uda Walawe National Park in Sri Lanka. He is especially interested in the combinations of calls that Asian elephants make, like the longroar-rumble, and by using playback experiments he is hoping to determine the meaning of these particular calls. Maybe these call combinations have a syntax-like quality, like has been found in the combinations of calls of Campbell monkeys in Tai National Park in Ivory Coast. Klaus Zuberbühler and his colleagues at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland studied the Campbell monkeys calls and discovered that when they for example add the sound “oo” to their alarmcalls (Krak for leopards, and Hok for eagles) the combined calls Krak-oo and Hok-oo change the meaning of the message that is transmitted. Krak-oo and Hok-oo then mean that the danger is less directly threatening or less specific. Mickey Pardo now wants to analyze the calls of the Asian elephants, but he will need all of you to help funding his research. He has set up a call for crowd funding at Through his research Pardo hopes to contribute to the conservation of Asian elephants, which are endangered and their numbers keep decreasing. Below Mickey will explain his study. Be sure to check out the project at and help funding this intriguing study!

Mickey Pardo: The first time I saw wild Asian elephants was last December, in Uda Walawe National Park, Sri Lanka.  As a first year Ph.D. student at Cornell University, I was trying to come up with a project, and was considering this park as a potential field site.  I was struck by the sheer variety of sounds that the elephants made.  Yes, they gave the well-known trumpets, but they also produced roars that carried for miles, rumbles so low-pitched that my human ears could barely detect them, and squeaks that sounded more like a dog’s chew toy than an elephant.  Why do these animals have so many different calls?  What do these calls mean?  The truth is, no one knows.  In fact, we know surprisingly little about how Asian elephants behave in the wild—even less than we know about their African cousins.  I’ve made it my business to uncover some of the secrets of Asian elephant communication—and hopefully get my Ph.D. in the process!

Spectogram of the longroar

Spectogram of the longroar

We share a startling amount in common with elephants.  Both of us are long-lived and have very large brains relative to our body size.  We both have vast social networks, and can remember individuals for decades.  And we both exhibit a large degree of cooperation within our social groups.  This is significant because one hypothesis for the reason that human language evolved to be so complex is that we needed a complex language to deal with our intricate social relationships, and to help us cooperate more effectively.  Given the striking parallels between the social behavior of humans and elephants, it’s very easy to imagine that elephant communication has a lot going on beneath the surface.

Spectogram of the rumble

Spectogram of the rumble

Asian elephants sometimes combine calls into sequences.  You can see an example of this in these spectrograms, which are visual representations of sound.  The first call is a longroar, a loud, noisy vocalization. The second is a rumble, a low-pitched, rolling sound.  The third call looks a lot like a combination of the first two, and is called (aptly enough), a longroar-rumble.  To me, this begs the question:  are these call combinations analogous to the way that we combine words into sentences?  If they are, this could be the first case of grammar-like communication in a non-primate.  However, it’s possible that the call combinations are just two separate signals that happen to be produced close together.  The only way to know for sure is to digitally manipulate recordings to create different sequences, play them back to the elephants, and observe their responses.  This type of experiment, called a “playback” experiment, is the gold standard in the field of animal communication.  It allows us to gain a window into how the animals perceive different calls, the closest we can come to actually asking them.

Spectogram of the combined longroar-rumble call

Spectogram of the combined longroar-rumble call

This January, I’ll be returning to Sri Lanka for six months to do the first ever playback experiments with Asian elephants.  It is perhaps understandable that no one has attempted these experiments with Asian elephants before, because it’s a logistical nightmare!  For one thing, many elephant calls have components below the range of human hearing.  The laws of physics dictate that in order to reproduce such low pitches, you need a truly massive loudspeaker.  Transporting a one hundred pound speaker to a remote location in a developing country is not cheap.  On top of that, I need to hire two jeeps: one to carry the loudspeaker out of sight of the elephants, and the other to drive closer to the herd so I can observe their behavior.

Because my thesis is completely independent from my advisor’s research, I am responsible for funding my project on my own.  I am trying to raise some of the money for my research through the crowdfunding platform Microryza.  In case you’re not familiar with crowdfunding, the idea is to get many people to donate to your project.  You have a limited amount of time to reach your goal, so the more exposure the project gets, the better.  If you’re able, I would appreciate it so much if you could contribute a small amount to my project.  Even if you’re not able to donate, if you could share this link to my project on Facebook or Twitter, that would be amazing.  I’ll be sure to keep you updated with the latest news about the research, and I’ll post plenty of photos and videos from the field!

In this video on YouTube Mickey Pardo is explaining his study with Asian elephants: 

Mickey's study


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