The Loh Down On Science

Purring Pachyderms

Do elephants purr?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, saying, okay, not that we know of.

But the question is less silly than it sounds. See, elephants do make low-frequency vibrations or “rumbles” in their throats. And it could be that the mechanism elephants use to rumble is the same one cats use to purr. Namely, active muscular contraction of their vocal folds, or chords.

But it’s also possible that elephans rumble via a more indirect method: by controlling air flow from the lungs past the vocal folds. This is actually how humans talk.

So do elephants vocalize like cats or like humans?

To find out, European scientists obtained the larynx of an elephant who had died at the Berlin Zoo. They attached the larynx to a sort of bellows, and pumped air past the vocal folds. And? The sounds were comparable to those produced by living pachyderms!

Mystery solved? Sadly, no. Now we only know a possible mechanism. Not the actual mechanism.

My personal suggestion? Just scratch Dumbo behind the ears and see what happens. Yeah.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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