Vol. 3, Issue 13, May 31, 2005
A Peerless Liniment Experience

Elephants make Seismic Rumbling in Iambic Pentameter

Nearly two decades ago, biologists were stunned to learn that elephants use a variety of low-pitched sounds barely audible to humans to communicate over long distances. Now an ecologist from Stanford has made the even more startling discovery that elephants also appear to generate powerful vibrations in the ground - seismic signals that elephants can feel, and even interpret, via their sensitive trunks and feet. What's more, some of the vibrations are in iambic pentameter.

"We don't exactly know everything that they're saying, but we have to assume a new level of poetic sophistication at this point," said Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, who has been studying seismic communication in elephants for more than a decade. "It is perplexing because it is not clear why an elephant would need to compose a sonnet, for example, to warn about lions near the watering hole. But the data are pretty clear."

Scientists have long known that seismic communication is common in small animals, including spiders, scorpions, insects and a few vertebrate species, such as white-lipped frogs, kangaroo rats and golden moles. The use of simple poetic feet such as trochees and spondees also has been observed in elephant seals - huge marine mammals not related to elephants. But O'Connell-Rodwell was the first to suggest that a large land animal is capable of sending and receiving vibrational messages in meter as complex as iambic pentameter.

"A lot of research has been done showing that small animals use the simpler meters to find mates, locate prey, and send losing submissions to local poetry contests," she notes. "But there have only been a few studies focusing on the ability of large mammals to communicate through such sophisticated verse forms."

Iambic pentameter is a meter in poetry, consisting of lines with five feet (hence "pentameter") in which the iamb is the dominant foot (hence "Iambic"); it is among the most common metrical forms in English poetry. Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries wrote poetry and drama in iambic pentameter.

"What we don't know is whether the fact that all our research animals come from Kenya has influenced the use of this metrical form," said O'Connell-Rodwell. "English is the official language of Kenya, of course. It would be fascinating to see whether elephant populations in French-speaking countries communicate in alexandrines instead. But I am not sure that there will be a lot of interest in funding that line of research."

Currently, she is focusing on the less common metrical forms observed, including some anapestic tetrameter used by a mother elephant used with her calves (possibly reciting a Dr. Seuss story) and what looks suspiciously like a series of limericks shared between two males.

"It is entirely possible that these elephants have actually come up with seismic rhymes for 'Nantucket,'" she said. "They have so much to teach us."

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