Acoustic biologist Katy Payne has studied whale songs and elephant communications for decades, and she’s our featured guest on this week’s show. She works in the realm of infrasound. That is, sound which is lower in frequency than what the human ear can normally comprehend.

While spending time at a zoo, she sensed a “throbbing” in the air near the elephants and wondered if it was possible that they were creating infrasound. She soon discovered that elephants do make such sounds to communicate meaning to one another, and even identified patterns to their language. Bayanga 2

In her 2009 PopTech presentation, she explains how she makes elephant sounds audible to the human ear by speeding up a recording by 10 times (which raises their sounds by 2.5 octaves). She hung audio/video recording devices from trees among an elephant population in Africa and retrieved enough data to link an elephant’s behavior to consequent sounds.

Even after a decade of working in radio, I still feel a child-like wonder at the kinds of unknowns that an audio recorder can capture about the world. Especially when it’s something that human ears or human attention would otherwise overlook.

(photo: Nicolas Rost/Flickr)

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