Sept. 23, 2009— -- 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.