Sir David Attenborough on Elephant Hearing

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities Producer Stephen Dunleavy interviews Sir David regarding his exciting new natural history series, exclusive to Eden.

Elephant feet

Stephen Dunleavy

"It’s taken us a long time to really understand elephants and in the programme we go on to look at different parts of their bodies and anatomy, and see what early interpretations of them were. When they were first brought over to Europe some people thought that their large ears meant they could listen to refined music and one of the things we cover in the film is the special music composed for them."

David Attenborough's Natural Curiosities

Sir David Attenborough

"Elephants can hear things we can’t hear! Amazingly, they can here really low notes. And they hear them through their feet. Deep noise, like the bass you hear in a cathedral organ pipe. In the elephants case it would be a deep rumble in the stomach, and can be heard by other elephants through their feet from a long way away! Up to a mile!

We thought that we could demonstrate this so we went with an elephant expert to the Serengeti with a huge speaker that was going to make this very low vibration. So we started playing, and we saw on the horizon a big bull elephant and this expert said “oh that's Raja he is terrific! He's the boss, the dominant bull elephant. Wonderful!” So we saw Raja going across the horizon and we started this deep bass recording, so low you could hardly hear it. And Raja stopped, lifted up his trunk, fanning his ears and started running quite fast. And the expert said “stop playing!” Dead right!

Amazingly, they can here really low notes. And they hear them through their feet.

Interestingly, the very first animal behaviour experiments that we can trace were the by the French who had two tame elephants. Some of these learned gentlemen thought they would test whether these elephants had any sort of musical sense. So they had the Paris orchestra, would you believe, play love music to the elephants and they maintained that they actually reacted to it! In particular they reacted to the sound of French horns! Subsequently, it was discovered that in the skull of an elephant the ears have this chamber which resonates at just the same sort of frequency note as a French horn."

Next: Attenborough on Mole Rats