In the Presence of Elephants

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Scientific discovery is not always the result of a careful accumulation of data or a measured consideration of the facts. Sometimes it takes a leap of imagination. Katy Payne, a naturalist and conservationist, took just such a leap and made an amazing discovery about how elephants communicate. And that was only the beginning of her adventure.

In 1984, Katy Payne visited the elephants at Washington Park Zoo in Portland. Oregon. She had been studying whale songs for the last fifteen years, and she was curious about the ways that elephants -- the largest living land mammals -- communicated with each other.

What Payne observed in her first week seemed, at the time, to be little cause for scientific excitement. But on her flight home, she flushed back to a childhood experience of singing in the church choir. Suddenly she realized that she had felt, in the presence of the elephants, a deep throbbing in the air just like the lowest notes of the church organ. Payne and two colleagues were soon able to show that elephants are powerful infrasound -- sound pitched too low for the human ear to hear -- in communication. This "silent thunder" allows elephants to intract over long distances.

This brilliant, unorthodox, nonlinearless was the basis of her discovery of infrasonic communication among elephant and is typical of Payne's work as a naturalist. It also infuses this deeply felt and observed book with an extraordinary spirit, Payne and her colleagues went on to do important field research on elephant communication in Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. But in 1991 the peaceful rhythms of their work were violently interrupted by a cull -- a planned killing -- that destroyed five of the elephant families they were studying. This destruction convinced her that all life is sacred. Payne determined to challenge the philosophies that support culling.

Silent Thunder is a natural history rich in ponderings about the animal world and how humans participate in it. It is also a passionate story of Payne's own spiritual quest as she turns an observant eye on her own role in this world and honors the holistic perspective of her indigenous friends, who became her teachers in Zimbabwe, Payne's courage and empathy shine through on every page, giving this unique combination of scientific journal and personal memoir an unforgettable emotional power.


About Katy Payne

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Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist whose study of humpback whale songs received national attention. A frequent lecturer on conservation and on animal behavior and communications, she is currently a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University's Bioacoustic Research Program. She lives in Ithaca, New York, and is the mother of four children.
Published August 12, 1998 by Simon & Schuster. 288 pages
Genres: Nature & Wildlife, Sports & Outdoors, Science & Math, Children's Books. Non-fiction

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""I was hearing faint sounds that might have been overtones of stronger sounds that the elephants, but not I, could hear."" In a chronicle that effectively blends memoir with the drama of scientific discovery, Payne (Elephants Calling), an acoustic biologist at Cornell, describes her role in the ...

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