If anyone can artfully explain how a herd of elephants is like a Quaker meeting, it is animal communication researcher Katy Payne. Payne has been studying the sounds and languages of African elephants and humpback whales—two of the world’s largest animals—for decades, but she’s also been listening to their silences. Her discoveries have led her to fascinating meditations on stillness, cognition, and how acoustic phenomena shape relationships and communities.
Though she’d been listening to the songs of humpback whales since the 1960s, it wasn’t until a trip to the Portland Zoo in 1984 that Payne realized elephants were communicating in a similar fashion, though their sounds have a low frequency inaudible to the human ear, and are thus felt rather than heard—if perceived at all. Payne described her experiences in Central African forests in the book Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, and in 1999 she founded the Elephant Listening Project to help ensure her subjects’ future. Through sound and video clips, her research team aims to monitor elephants’ welfare and movements, as well as track the effectiveness of conservation efforts. Payne is currently affiliated with the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology.