Stegodon: Does this ancient elephant have origins in Asia?

So much has been said in recent years about the wealth of fossils in China. Almost all of it about dinosaurs: exciting new species, feathered fossils, nest upon nest of dinosaur eggs.  There is no doubt that China holds exciting clues to the history of our planet; one has only to wait to hear of the next discovery.

Within the past few months, yet another exciting find was revealed, but this time about a little known mammalian ancestor: Stegodon.


Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephens

Painting of a Stegodon by artist Hannah


The name Stegodon, to me, evokes ‘dinosaur’, not ‘mammal,’ but this was, indeed, an ancient animal.  Its fossils resemble those of other similar mammals, from mastodons to mammoths to today’s elephants.



Alexandra van der Geer - shrinking elephants

Figure 1: Reconstruction of four insular dwarf proboscideans with their respective mainland ancestors. Mainland proboscideans: 1, Palaeoloxodon antiquus; 2, Mammuthus columbi; 3, Stegodon zdanskyi [stegodon found in China]. Insular proboscideans: 4, Palaeoloxodon ‘mnaidriensis’; 5, Palaeoloxodon falconeri; 6, Mammuthus exilis; 7, Stegodon aurorae [a type of dwarf stegodon found in Japan]. Based on skeletons at Museo di Paleontología, University of Rome, Italy (1), American Museum of Natural History, New York (2), Taylor Made Fossils, U.S. (3), Museo di Paleontología e Geología G.G. Gemmellaro, Palermo, Italy (4), Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum Senckenberg, Frankfurt, Germany (5), Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, U.S. (6), Taga Town Museum, Honshu, Japan (7). Photos 1–2, 4–7 George Lyras, photo 3 courtesy of, reproduced here with permission.

From The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer et al; photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.


When Stegodon skulls with tusks attached have been found, many (but not all) of the tusks are close together–preventing the trunk (the ‘proboscis,’ from which this group gets its name; proboscis —> proboscidea) from hanging between them.

They lived in what is now Africa and Asia, causing continued debate over its place of origin. Until recently, the oldest known Stegodon fossil, a 6.5+ million-year-old partial molar from Kenya, was described by William J. Sanders in 1999.  That record changed this past December when Dr. Hong Ao and his colleagues published their results dating the sediment in the Lanzhou Basin, China, from which a number of fossils–including that of a Stegodon–were found.

And that Stegodon was found to be between 8 – 11 million years old.


GSA Geologic Time Scale - Neogene

Detail of the Geologic Time Scale, created by the Geological Society of America.  Stegodon is believed to have existed between the Miocene to the Pleistocene, a relatively small segment of time in Earth’s overall history, but still considerably longer than that of our own species!  (You can view the time scale in much better detail here.) 


The fossils of the Stegodon, along with at least 5 other species, were actually found in the 1980s by Professor Xing Zhang of Northwest University in China.  Given the length of time between the fossil excavations and the recent dating of these fossils, one might wonder why determining the fossil age took so long.

Dr. Ao, a scientist at the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues state that western China does not have suitable material for radiometric dating, an oft-used method for this purpose.

When I asked why this was so, Dr. Ao replied by email, “Because volcanic activities are rare in western China during the late Cenozoic, it is difficult to find  in situ tephros or tuffs for radiometric dating (e.g., 40Ar/39Ar dating).”

Instead, they conducted a magnetostratigraphic study, one in which they determined the age of the rock through the polar reversal record.  Combining this with analysis of the fossils provided evidence that this Stegodon is 2 – 5 million years older than that of the Kenyan partial molar.

“We are indeed surprised by our dating results,” Dr. Ao continued, “which document that the Lanzhou Stegodon is the oldest Stegodon worldwide, although the Stegodon  fossil [was] not discovered by us. However, our dating results document it to be the oldest known Stegodon fossil.”

Dr. Hong Ao 1


Dr. Hong Ao 2

Dr. Hong Ao 3

Dr. Hong Ao 4

Images of Professor Yongxiang Li (from Northwest University) and his master student as well as several employed workers who helped to excavate mammal fossils, Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.


indricotherine fossil

indricotherine fossil2

indricotherine fossil3

Images of indricotherine fossils found in Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.


Dr. Ao himself has been working with fossils in the Lanzhou Basin for 5 years.  When asked how  he and his co-authors chose to work together on this recent paper, he wrote, “I have collaborated with them on broad subjects before, thus I [invited] them to join [in] this research.”

Finding information about this extinct species is difficult.  Unlike mammoths or mastodons, Stegodon does not appear to be a popular ancient animal.

Fortunately, Dr. Alexandra van der Geer–paleontologist, indologist, ethno-zoologist and author –has not only studied this species, she very generously made herself available for questions.  Currently, Dr. van der Geer is an Associate Researcher at both the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands. She is part of the Isolario project, a project that studies biodiversity and cultural evolution within an island context.

When I asked why there was such a dearth of information on Stegodon, she wrote, “We can think of several reasons for this.”

“First of all, stegodons typically are the elephants of Southeast and East Asia, where most countries did not have the resources and opportunities most Western countries had when it comes to scientific research and excavations. These activities are costly, and since they don’t have a direct use in the sense that they don’t advance the medical, technical or economic levels of a country, they have, understandably, a lower priority. Furthermore, because of this region, half the publications (especially before the 1990s or so) you can find are in Chinese or Japanese, which is not very helpful to the [English-speaking] world.

“Secondly, stegodons are forest elephants. Forest areas are very unlikely places for the long-term preservation of organic materials: everything is eaten, digested or otherwise broken down into smaller components in no time. The tropical (warm, humid) climate of these forests is not helpful either, as decomposition is much faster here. Stegodon remains only have a chance to be preserved when (1) they are covered fast, such as with river sediments, volcanic ashes etc., (2) or are in an oxygen-free environment, such as sunken deeply into a swamp, (3) or were deposited in a natural fridge such as limestone caves where they are gradually covered in clayish sediment or [travertines]. The same is valid for Palaeoloxodon, the Old World fossil elephant, but Europe has many limestone caves, which are excellent for preservation (for a nice [travertine]-preserved negative skull, see Stuttgart museum: skull cast SMNS nr. 32888 from Bad Cannstatt).

“As you can deduct from these preservation issues, it is more likely to find molars and tusks than skeletal material, which is much softer. The vast majority of proboscidean findings all over the planet consists of molars and tusks, and that is not for nothing. Inherently this means that there is much more information about their dentition and diet than about their bodies.”

I was interested in understanding why Stegodons are portrayed as hairless animals, so very similar to contemporary elephants.  Was this just an artistic guess?

“The hairlessness of stegodons is not an artistic guess but a scientific guess instead,” Dr. van der Geer answered.  “Very large animals with thick skins (pachyderms) in a (sub)tropical environment are unlikely to have a significant hair covering. Elephants lost their hairs secondarily. The information for hair growth is not lost, and baby elephants still have a thin, woolly coat. Woolly mammoths lived in the cold, temperate zones, and needed hair, so they were covered in a thick layer of hairs, and for this is evidence (mummies preserved in the permafrost), but the other mammoths (M. meridionalis, M. columbi, M. exilis, etc.), [did] not, and it’s generally assumed that they had a light coat fitting to the temperate zones.

“Tropical and subtropical stegodons almost certainly did not have any coat that’s worth mentioning. Stegodons of temperate zones, however, may have been more hairy. Indeed, the lack of hairs makes them look more like today’s elephants.”


Alexandra van der Geer - Stegodon ganesa-model-I.Vjdchauhan-SiwalikHills

Photo of the two life-size models of Stegodon ganesa;photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.


“Note, however, that the proboscis is carried very differently. Their tusks are set very close to each other, so the proboscis doesn’t fit in between as in modern elephants, Asian and African alike. This means that the mobility of their proboscis was more restricted, relative to their living relatives.”


Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-excavation-31-stegodon-florensis

Fossils of Stegodon florensis insularis, from Flores, Indonesia; photo courtesy of Dr. John de Vos (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.


Alexandra van der Geer - stegodon-timorensis-mandible

Mandible (and holotype!) of  Stegodon timorensis; photo courtesy of Eelco Kruidenier (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  Anyone familiar with proboscidean teeth and jaws will recognize the similarities instantly.


But how do we know that Stegodon–a rather enormous animal–evolved into something smaller?

“[D]warfs and giants are relative. Something can be a dwarf, yet have a considerable size. When we speak of dwarf stegodons, we mean stegodons that are much smaller than their ancestors. For this, you have of course to have identical or otherwise similar elements from both the descendant and the ancestor in order to compare reliably,” she continued.

“The expectation is that dwarf stegodons must have existed on the islands, following the so-called island rule, according to which large animals get smaller in isolation. There is sound evidence that this rule still stands, and is even more pronounced for fossil species (see Lomolino et al., 2013, in Journal of Biogeography).

“Indeed, the many fossil molars from the Southeast Asian islands (‘Wallacea’) are all much and much smaller than the same molars from their mainland ancestors (see Van den Bergh, 1999). True, you first have to know what is the ancestor, and for this you need information about morphology, or how the molars, tusks, skulls and postcranial elements look like. After that, you compare the sizes.

“Note that if a molar is, for example, half the length of the same molar of its ancestral species, the body weight of that animal must have been a quarter of that of its ancestor! (the cubic law: linear reduction 50% means volume reduction 50% of 50%).”

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-stegodon-florensis

Molar of Stegodon florensis; photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  


“The most interesting dwarf stegodon is Stegodon sondaari, named after the Dutch palaeontologist Paul Yves Sondaar (1934-2003), expert in fossil insular mammals. This stegodon lived on the island of Flores about a million years ago, and weighted only about 15% of the weight of its ancestral species, S. elephantoides (see Van der Geer et al., 2016, in Journal of Biogeography, doi:10.1111/jbi.12743).

“Sondaar’s dwarf stegodon is not the smallest stegodon, that honour goes to the Sumba stegodon (S. sumbaensis), of only 8% of the original weight. Sondaar’s stegodon is interesting because it may have witnessed the arrival of early humans, possibly the ancestors of the Hobbit, or Homo floresiensis. Its fossils are contemporaneous with primitive lithic artefacts, dated to about a million years ago (see Brumm et al., 2010, in Nature 464, pp. 748–752).”


Alexandra van der Geer - Sumba-stegodon-sompoensis-holotype-in-Naturalis-Leiden-2

Molar (and holotype!) of Stegodon sompoenisphoto courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  


“[R]ecently,” she concluded, “one of the island dwarf stegodons (S. timorensis of Timor) has been dated to about 130 thousand years ago (see Louys et al., 2016, in PeerJ 4:e1788). This excludes, according to the authors, an anthropogenic cause for its extinction, because humans had not yet arrived at the island.”



So many people helped with this blog post!  (But please remember that any errors are my own.)

Many, many thanks to Dr. Hong Ao (Dr. Ao Hong) from the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) for his fascinating responses and the great images of fossil excavations in the Lanzhou Basin.  I am thrilled that he was willing to answer questions about his research and that of his colleagues! It was a great honor and a pleasure connecting with him!

I am indebted to Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer, who very kindly (and so very quickly–despite everything else she has going on!!) answered specific questions about Stegodon that I could not find anywhere else and who provided pictures of dwarf Stegodon fossils.  It was an equally great honor and pleasure connecting with her!

A mastodon-sized thank you to the amazing Dr. Katy Smith for providing needed and hard-to-find material on Stegodon fossils!

And an enormous thank you to artist Hannah Stephens for her depiction of a Stegodon as it may have appeared in life.  I am particularly moved by the warmth of its intelligent-looking eyes, and I love the tones within its skin.  I adore this picture.  I am grateful to have it in this post;  I am thrilled to have the actual painting hanging on my wall!  Please be sure to check out her artwork at: or


References from Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer:

  1. Brumm A, Jensen GM, van den Bergh GD, Morwood MJ, Kurniawan I, Aziz F, Storey M (2010) Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by one million years ago. Nature 464, 748–752.
  2. Lomolino MV, van der Geer AAE, Lyras GA, Palombo MR, Sax DF, Rozzi R (2013) Of mice and mammoths: generality and antiquity of the island rule. Journal of Biogeography 40, 1427–1439.
  3. Louys J, Price GJ, O’Connor S. (2016) Direct dating of Pleistocene stegodon from Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara. PeerJ 4:e1788
  4. van den Bergh GD (1999) The Late Neogene elephantoidbearing faunas of Indonesia and their palaeozoogeographic implications; a study of the terrestrial faunal succession of Sulawesi, Flores and Java, including evidence for early hominid dispersal east of Wallace’s line. Scripta Geologica 117, 1–419.
  5. van der Geer AAE, van den Bergh GD, Lyras GA, Prasetyo UW, Due RA, Setiyabudi E, Drinia H (2016) The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscideans. Journal of Biogeography, doi: 10.111/jbi.12743

References used in this blog post:

  1. New magnetochronology of Late Miocene mammal fauna, NE Tibetan Plateau, China: Mammal migration and paleoenvironments; by Hong Ao, Peng Zhang, Mark J. Dekkers, Andrew P. Roberts, Zhisheng An, Yongxiang Li, Fengyan Lu, Shan Lin, Xingwen Li; Earth and Planetary Science Letters; 1o December 2015
  2. Oldest record of Stegodon (Mammalia: Proboscidea); by William J. Sanders; Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology; Vol. 19, No. 4, Dec. 13, 1999, pp. 793 – 797
  3. Fossil elephantoids, Awash paleolake basins, and the Afar triple junction, Ethiopia; by Jon E. Kalb; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology; 1995, pp. 357 – 368
  4. The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea; by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer, Gerrit D. van den Bergh, George A. Lyras, Unggul W. Prasetyo, Rokus Awe Due, Erick Setiyabudi, and Hara Drinia; Journal of Biogeography; 11 March 2016.
  5. Magnetostratigraphy – concepts, definitions, and applications, by Cor G. Langereis, Wout Krijgsman, Giovanni Muttoni, and Manfred Menning; Newsletter on Stratigraphy, Vol. 43/3: 207–233, April 2010
  6. Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Adrian Lister, Firefly Books, 2014
  7. Mammoths, by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, University of California Press, 2007
  8. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives, Edited by Jeheskiel Shoshani and Pascal Tassy, Oxford Science Publications, 1996
  • Stegodontidae: evolutionary relationships by Haruo Saegusa, pp. 178 – 190, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives
  • Palaeobiogeography of late Neogene African and Eurasian Elephantoidea by Jon E. Kalb, David J. Froehlich, and Gordon L. Bell, pp. 117 – 123, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives

The Elephant Listening Project – Communication and Conservation

“One thing that surprised me was how much noise they made when they rubbed their bodies on tree-trunks (which they do a lot) and flapped their ears.”

Liz Rowland, data analyst for the Elephant Listening Project, recalled one of her few field trips in Gabon.  In this instance, she and Peter Wrege—director of the ELP (Elephant Listening Project)—were observing elephants at night with the help of infrared floodlights and night-vision binoculars.

“It was also obvious how great their sense of smell was. If the wind was going from us to them, they’d often all put up their trunks in the air (called periscoping) to smell us. Quite amusing.”

Sierra Exif JPEG

[Image of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic) drinking at the mineral pits taken by Andrea Turkelo, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

Gabon is one of the African countries in which the ELP works and one of the limited places left in the world home to wild herds of elephants.

“The only staff employed in ELP are me and Peter,” Liz continued, “and we’re here in Ithaca nearly all the time, so our fieldwork is quite limited. Mostly, it involves just Peter Wrege going out to an area and trekking through the forest to put up recording units. He’s been going out to one area or another a few times per year.”

Andrea Turkalo, a scientist who has studied elephants for over 20 years, is another member of the team, even if she is not technically employed by the ELP.

What has become standard practice—regularly recording and analyzing elephant sounds–was an original idea in the 1980’s.  The ELP’s founder, Katy Payne, had spent fifteen years listening to whales with her then-husband, Roger Payne. Her curiosity as an acoustics biologist veered toward elephants in 1984. So she visited the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon, to listen to the Asian elephants residing there.

In her book Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes her introduction to those zoo elephants, to the social hierarchy evident in that brief visit, and, eventually, of six trunks extending through the bars, “gently surrounding [her] with whiffing” [page 17], as they explored her scent.  It was that visit, in which she felt rather than heard a throbbing in the air, that prompted her to question whether elephants made sounds that humans might not be able to detect.

She acknowledges that she was not necessarily the first to make this observation.  She points to M. Krishan, who made such a suggestion in 1972, and to Judith Berg of the San Diego Zoo. (page 44)  Elephant scientists such as Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole in Kenya as well as Iain Douglas-Hamilton in Tanzania had wondered how elephants could appear to communicate without any apparent sound over long distances. (page 43)

Katy Payne was, it seems, the first to act upon it and undertake ongoing studies to research it further.  Her tape recordings of elephants at the zoo revealed communication through infrasound.

Her research in the 80’s and 90’s took her to a number of African countries: Amboseli Park in Kenya, Etosha National Park in Namibia, and the Sengwa Wildlife Research Area in Zimbabwe.

Her teams’ recordings were brought back to Cornell University, situated in the rolling hills of Ithaca, NY.  And there, they were further analyzed. The Elephant Listening Project found its home in–of all places–the Ornithology program within that institution.

“[I]ndeed, people are usually surprised that we’re based at the Lab of Ornithology!” Liz Rowland explained. “The reason is to do with acoustics. I think there was already a sound library here for bird song when Katy established ELP. There was also another link I think. Chris Clark was already here at the Lab as head (and founder) of the Bioacoustics Research Program, working on whale sounds. Chris had previously worked as an assistant to Katy when she was working on whales. So I think that helped get Katy started here.”

Over the years, the areas in which the ELP works have changed slightly.

“Peter works with people based in Africa, often associated with the Wildlife Conservation Society, who suggest or request sites,” Liz wrote.

ELP - Langoue_grp

[Image taken by Peter Wrege, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

“There’s usually a specific need for information about the elephant and/or poaching activity. For example, Parks’ or Wildlife Conservation Society staff might be especially concerned about poaching in an area, or local people might be thinking of setting up an ecotourism project and would like to know when/where best to set up a platform [for wildlife viewing.]”

“[It’s] really only Peter that goes out to the field, although I did go with him once when we did a project that did need field observations. This was to confirm earlier studies by ELP where we found that the number of elephant calls recorded was a good indicator of the number of elephants observed at a forest clearing. So, we had to both make acoustic recordings and visual observations at a clearing.”

Communication between humans over such geographic distance offers its own obstacles.

“Unless he’s in one of the towns en route to the field, [Peter] doesn’t have any contact [with other ELP sites] except by expensive satellite phone.  Andrea Turkalo is usually based in Dzanga National Park, [Namibia], where she has limited email access and a satellite phone.”

When asked about the greatest challenge to the ELP, however, Liz responded, “Funding! We’re always on the edge of having no money at all! There are only 2 of us and although we both work full time, we don’t have funding to cover that in salary. We really need to be able to pay skilled computer programmers to help us progress, and although there are several people here in the Bioacoustics Research Program (of which we are a part), ELP has to be able to pay for their time if we want their help. Funding from grants has been increasingly difficult to obtain.”

The feeling that she’s “doing something to help conserve an extremely endangered species” is what Liz notes as the most rewarding aspect of her job at ELP.

“My interests have always been with animal behavior and conservation.”  She noted that living in South Africa for several years prompted her love of Africa in general. “Communication and social behavior of mammals, especially African mammals, has always held a special lure for me.”

“I used to work in a different department at Cornell (Natural Resources),” she continued, “which was quite interesting work, but was geared towards figuring out how to ‘manage’ wildlife (finding effective repellents, etc.), which was the wrong angle for me!”

ELP - Unequal V, VI 7

[Image of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic) drinking at the mineral pits taken by Andrea Turkelo, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

“Katy Payne used to give talks on campus every now and then about her work with the elephants so naturally I went along to them and was hooked! I kept asking if she had positions free but of course ELP had no spare funding. Eventually my contract with Natural Resources expired and Katy took me on as a volunteer. Then ELP got a little bit of money so they actually employed me, and so it’s been (on and off!) since then. Although I rarely get to actually see elephants, or even video of them, my motivation is that I’m helping to provide information that is needed to conserve them.”

Learning about elephants—let alone for a piece like this; one can only imagine what it is like in the field—is fraught with emotional highs and lows.

There are the beautiful anecdotes that demonstrate how highly intelligent and social these animals are.  One recognizes traits within elephant families that human families share: the adult tenderness with the youth in the group; baby elephants playing with one another; mischief created by the youth that is tolerated (or not!) by the adults; and the seemingly obvious grief for and memory of an elephant that has died, as the other elephants will touch and smell the bones of that elephant for years afterwards.

In one particularly amusing moment in Silent Thunder, Katy Payne describes how several juvenile male elephants—enormous creatures with an enormous combined weight—are stopped by the sight of a butterfly and then flee. (page 73)

One recognizes personalities within elephants.  One can see—from observers such as those at the ELP, who record interactions and describe them for those of us unable to witness them—how connected the elephants within each family or bond group truly are.

But then one cannot ignore the overwhelming information about elephant destruction: their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Most of their deaths are directly attributed to the ivory trade, an illegal market that kills thousands of these animals each year.  The reasons behind it and the people involved—from those with great economic need to those who are organized, well-funded and feeding an international demand—make this human/animal conflict messy, complicated and constant.

These numbers were painful almost two decades ago when Katy Payne wrote about them in Silent Thunder.  The numbers have only increased since then.

“[F]orest elephants are being killed at the rate of about 10,000 per year,” wrote Liz Rowland. “There may be only 100,000 forest elephants left.”

National Geographic included devastating statistics of elephant deaths throughout the world in  Bryan Christy’s 2012 article about the ivory trade. Within Central Africa, 90% percent of elephant deaths were attributed to ivory poaching; within Eastern Africa, those same figures were at 59%; in Western Africa, 84%; and in Southern Africa, 51%.  In that same article, it was estimated that African elephants alone numbered at 1.3 million in 1979.  In 2007, their numbers had fallen to a mere 472,000 – 690,000. (You can see that graphic and those figures here.) Given the annual death rate to the ivory market, today’s numbers can only be smaller.

Liz Rowland emphasizes this when she wrote, “The current threat to elephants is the ivory trade – mainly from the Chinese market. Everyone should do all they can to educate people about this whenever they have the opportunity (especially to those people who might consider buying ivory!)”

Also important, she noted, “Andrea and Peter are in the process of analyzing the data from [Andrea’s] 22-year long observational study at Dzanga National Park, and it shows that the reproductive rate is much slower than that of their savannah cousins, making them even more vulnerable to extinction.”

The length of time these researchers and their colleagues have spent in the field observing elephants is important. They have compiled a wealth of data that only continues to grow.

Even initially, Katy Payne mentions the creation of an elephant dictionary based upon their research.  Peter Wrege, in a relatively recent 60 Minute video, explains that the dictionary is still in its infancy.  It is one thing to learn another human language; the complexity of learning and accurately interpreting the language of another species altogether seems staggering.  It would be a remarkable achievement.

The members of ELP are not yet able to identify specific elephants by sound.

Wrote Liz, “At the moment, we’re too concerned with just getting the basic information about where elephants are, patterns of activity, etc., because this is essential for conservation planning, and we’re too short-staffed to do anything but the essentials.

“Andrea’s work is a separate project in a sense. There is one elephant there that has a unique call, but other than him, even Andrea isn’t able to ID the elephants by their calls.

“However, we think it’s very likely that the elephants recognize each other from their calls, and there has been some research on the Savannah elephant that shows that they are able to distinguish familiar from non-familiar individuals. The rumbles are very varied, so it makes sense that they can recognize calls. It would take a lot of work (time synchronized multi-channel audio recordings so that we could figure out where the elephant was when it called, with time synchronized video recordings) to figure this out.”

ELP - Thomas_ele

[A forest elephant named Thomas, taken by Peter Wrege, courtesy of the Elephant Listening Project]

As Katy Payne mused in Silent Thunder, “The more closely you watch elephants, the more complexity you see in their communities.” (page 63)


An absolutely enormous thank you to Liz Rowland of the Elephant Listening Project, who took precious time to respond to my questions and did so very generously!  An equally large thank you to everyone at the ELP, including Andrea Turkelo, and everyone within various African countries that work to preserve these animals.  And finally, a big thank you to my mom, who introduced me to Katy Payne and the Elephant Listening Project by giving me the book Silent Thunder.

Books (and magazine article) referenced:

  1. Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, Katy Payne, 1998, Simon & Schuster
  2. Ivory, Horn and Blood: Behind the Elephant and Rhinoceros Poaching Crisis, Ronald Orenstein, 2013, Firefly Books
  3. The Elephant’s Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa, Caitlin O’Connell, 2007, Free Press
  4. Ivory Worship, Bryan Christy, National Geographic, October, 2012

You can help!  Adopt-an-elephant:

The Elephant Listening Project:

More info about Andrea Turkelo from NPR:

12.9.2014: Important updates on the ivory trade: two articles related to the massive number of elephant deaths for the ivory trade.  These two point to China as the major market behind this, adding that selling mammoth tusks is legal in that country.

( – if you need)

“Le massacre des éléphants d’Afrique et le commerce de leur ivoire en Chine sont «hors de contrôle» et pourraient provoquer leur extinction d’ici une génération.”