If you were as clever as an elephant you could communicate with your friends without a cell phone or iPod or any other fancy electronic gadget. All you would have to do is speak, quite loudly as it turns out, and the earth would carry your message through seismic waves across considerable distances.
Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell discovered this amazing ability of elephants while working in Africa more than a decade ago, and she recognized it because she had seen similar clues in insects she had studied years earlier at the University of Hawaii.
Today she is a scientist specializing in behavioral ecology at Stanford University, and the research she pioneered now suggests that many animals communicate through subtle shock waves that travel along the earth's surface.
The work lends some scientific credence to the idea that some animals may even be able to predict earthquakes because of weak precursors that arrive before the main shockwave.
That belief has been supported largely by anecdotal evidence, and scientific validation has been hard to come by, but this work suggests that skeptics who scorned the idea may have leaped to a premature judgment.
That, however, remains to be seen, but what is clear at this point is that a number of animals, especially elephants, have some communications skills that eclipse those possessed by humans.
O'Connell-Rodwell was working on a master's thesis on insects called plant hoppers when she documented a peculiar form of communication by a male seeking the attention of a female. The male would freeze, then press down on his legs, go forward a little, then freeze again. No audible signal, but the female got the message.
That set her to wondering if there wasn't a lot more to communications than scientists had thought. It was well known that a number of smaller animals communicated the same way, including some spiders, scorpions, kangaroo rats and golden moles.
But could large mammals also communicate via seismic waves?
Several years later O'Connell-Rodwell was studying in Etosha National Park in northern Namibia when she observed something remarkable.
"I saw elephants doing the same thing" as the plant hoppers back in the lab, she said in a telephone interview. "I saw elephants paying a lot of attention to the ground, shifting their feet, reorienting them, and then lifting a foot off the ground similar to the way the insects behaved."
Joined by experts from a wide variety of fields, O'Connell-Rodwell and her colleagues have since documented how elephants can communicate over considerable distances, possibly several miles, by seismic waves transmitted through the ground.
The researchers documented much of their research in a recent issue of the journal Physiology, published by the American Physiological Society.
Elephants, of course, are highly vocal but their loud "vocalizations" do more than wake up the neighbors.
"The elephant creates this vocalization with such a high sound pressure that it hits the ground, like a mini explosion, so hard that it creates ripples across the surface of the ground," O'Connell-Rodwell said. That's how the elephant sends a message, and other elephants can tell whether the signal is coming from a friend or a foe, and whether danger, or food, is nearby.