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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Unheard Voices

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth commentator Sy Mongomery explores the hidden world of animal communication--and what it tells us about our own senses.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. Animals have some astonishing powers that we humans are only beginning to understand. Living on Earth commentator Sy Montgomery has been exploring this hidden world.

MONTGOMERY: No one could explain it. When elephants were being slaughtered in one area in Zimbabwe, in a different area other elephants grew restless, flapping ears, swinging trunks, pacing, as if they knew what was happening to the other elephants miles away.

Another mystery. Fin whales, unlike other migratory whales, don't return to traditional wintering grounds year after year. They choose new spots each year. From around the world, all the fin whales know to come here, this year, to breed. How could these things be? For decades, scientists were baffled, but Henry Beston, not a scientist but a naturalist, knew something. He watched the life at the edge of the sea near his Cape Cod home. When this century was still young, he reached this conclusion in his book, The Outermost House: "We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals," he wrote. "In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear."

More than half a century later, scientists are beginning to explore whole worlds of sensation outside of human experience. Echoes of voices we can never hear. Bats and dolphins use a form of sonar, known as echolocation, to probe their worlds with beams of sounds: sounds we can't hear. Elephants, whales, hippos, and alligators, and probably many other species, can create and hear infrasounds below the threshold of human hearing. In water, infrasound can travel farther than the widest ocean basin, enabling fin whales to find each other halfway around the world. It explains how groups of elephants can stay in touch with one another when they're miles apart.

Using sensitive recording and playback technology, scientists are now beginning to document that many animals' social systems may be far richer, more complex and wide-ranging than previously suspected. Long before television, telephone, or the Internet, some of these creatures may have been broadcasting information far beyond their immediate family herd or pod, to call, warn, or inform other animals miles away. The mystery now is, how did Henry Beston know years before infrasound was discovered? About the unheard voices governing animals' lives. Perhaps, he, too, possessed a sense we have not officially discovered or named. A sensitivity, an intuition, that allowed him to look at other lives and imagine them to be more, not less, than what is immediately apparent to our dim, human senses.

CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is a commentator for Living on Earth. Her latest book is called The Spell of the Tiger.



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