Monday, December 28, 2009

Learn About Elephant Language

'60 Minutes' to feature Cornell's Elephant Listening Project

In February, researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Elephant Listening Project (ELP) caught a charter plane from Cameroon to the Central African Republic with "60 Minutes" anchor Bob Simon and a video crew.

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There, in the Dzanga-Sangha Deep Forest Reserve, the crew filmed elephants and interviewed researchers -- including Peter Wrege, director of the ELP.

The program has scheduled a feature on the elephant project for Sunday, Jan. 3. The segment will cover that trip and a subsequent visit by Simon and his crew to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology this past June where he interviewed the founder of the project, Katy Payne, and ELP researchers Mya Thompson, Ph.D. '09, Elizabeth Rowland and Melissa Groo.

"At Dzanga, the focus was on the elephants and their communication," said Wrege. "We did lots of talking about what we know about a dictionary of elephant vocalizations and what we hope to learn."

Simon also interviewed Andrea Turkalo, a Wildlife Conservation Society researcher, a world expert on African elephants and a founding member of ELP. Turkalo, who continues to work with ELP researchers to understand the habits and biology of forest elephants, discussed details on individual elephants, her life in the reserve and efforts to keep poachers away.

At the lab, Simon reinterviewed Wrege; he also talked with Payne about how ELP got started and her perspective on the future of elephant conservation and with Thompson on how the lab uses field recordings to study forest elephant ecology and behavior.

To capture audio recordings of elephants, the researchers hoist battery-run bioacoustic recorders, which can record continuously for three months, up into trees and hope that monkeys do not pull out the wires, explained ELP analyst Rowland. In Ithaca, the sound files are analyzed using special Cornell-developed software that turns the sounds into visual representations featuring amplitude, frequency and time scales. Analysts then parse out individual elephant calls of males and females in various reproductive

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