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One-month-old elephant studied by scientists to find out how the gentle giants talk to each other

An adorable one-month-old baby elephant has become part of a science experiment to find out how the gentle giants communicate.    

Researchers at the world’s oldest zoo in Austria are using hi-tech microphones to try and detect how the baby, named Kibal, is learning to speak to her mum.

The research project involves recording communication between the baby elephant and mum and the equipment is searching for signs of both audible and inaudible communication. 

 

Christopher Gorofsky, 24, is carrying out some of the research as part of his Masters.

His work is part of a long-term project carried out by a team from the University of Vienna and funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).

He said the zoo was the perfect place because in the wild it was very difficult and dangerous to approach mother elephants and their young.

Project manager Angela Stöger-Horwath from the Department of Cognitive Biology said: ‘We want to learn which sounds are innate and which are learned. We also want to see if she’s copying her sounds from her mother.’

She added that elephants have different sound types. The best known is the trumpet.

But she added: ‘The most common sound is the so-called rumbling, that sounds rather like the engine of a truck.

‘The lowest frequency component is in the infrasound range and is not audible to us humans, but with our special equipment we can also record the deep sounds.’

The subject of the thesis is ‘Early mother-child communication among African elephants in the zoo’ and Mr Gorofsky has been given unlimited access to all areas of the elephant park the same as keepers in order to record what he needs.

He said: ‘In the beginning Kibali made hardly any sounds. Communication however since then been steadily increasing. If she wants to drink with her mother, she makes a kind of squeak.’

But he also noted that communication included body language which was used by Kibali to indicate whether she wanted to drink or play, or indicate she has heard when her mother calls for her.

The baby elephant was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and mother Numbi, 20, already has raised two baby elephants after coming to Vienna in 2009.

The pair were chosen because Numbi was clearly experienced enough to make her developing relationship with the new baby of interest to the research team. 

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