"Our study suggests that the elephants are responding to a common environmental signal," says Oliver Frauenfeld. "The change in their movements occurs well before—from days to weeks—of any rain in the elephants' current location." (Credit: iStockphoto)

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How thunderstorms could help save African elephants

Elephants can tell when a storm is approaching, even if it’s 150 miles away.

Scientists hope one day to use this ability to save them from being killed by the thousands by poachers.

Researchers analyzed data from GPS tracking devices placed on elephants in 14 different herds in the Nambia region of Africa and plotted the elephants’ movements for seven years. The region has a distinct rainy season and conditions are usually hot and dry with little precipitation.

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The researchers found that elephants can “sense” thunderstorms—often hundreds of miles from their current location—and seem to predict approaching rain several days before it occurs.

“The onset of the rainy season there is very abrupt and lasts just a few weeks, and the rest of the time, there is little or no rain at all,” explains Oliver Frauenfeld, assistant professor in the geography department at Texas A&M University.

“With the GPS device attached to them, we learned that the elephants can detect thunderstorms at great distances. We don’t know if they can actually hear the thunder or if they are detecting other low-frequency sounds generated by the storms that humans can’t hear. But there is no doubt they know what direction the rain is.”

Getting elephants to safety

Frauenfeld says the information could have conservation implications for helping elephants survive the rampant poaching trade in Africa by allowing wildlife officials to better predict the location and movement of elephant herds.

A recent study by National Geographic estimates that at least 100,000 elephants were killed during a three-year period from 2010-2012, and Central Africa has lost 64 percent of the elephant population in the last decade. Some localized populations could be wiped out entirely within the next 10 years, the study says.

“While the environmental trigger that causes their movements remains uncertain, rain-system generated infrasound, which can travel great distances and be detected by elephants, is a possible trigger for changes in their migration patterns,” Frauenfeld adds.

“Our study suggests that the elephants are responding to a common environmental signal. The change in their movements occurs well before—from days to weeks—of any rain in the elephants’ current location.”

Coauthors from the University of Virginia, Australia’s University of New South Wales and the University of Utah contributed to the study, which appears in PLOS ONE.

Source: Texas A&M University

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