Song of the Lost Clan Information and Resources on the Young Adult Novel

How do Elephants Find their Way Along Migration Paths?

January 14, 2015 · By Angela Render
Wayfinding Elephants

January is International Wayfinding Month and a prime opportunity to consider how and why elephants migrate.

The why is understandable enough:

  • Danger – Specifically, avoiding human encroachment.
  • Resources – Elephants each consume between 200 and 600 pounds of food and 50 gallons of water a day. With family groups averaging 15 members, a herd of elephants can put a strain on the food and water supply. Seasonal wet and dry spells also necessitate relocation in order to have enough food and water. For example, the Mali desert elephant’s migration route covers 280 miles (Source: National Geographic).

The intricacies of how elephants navigate is more difficult to know for certain. What we do know is that the migratory paths are learned—passed down from matriarch to daughter. Recent studies have shown that herds led by or with access to aged members have a better chance of surviving sudden harsh changes in the environment like extended drought (Source: National Geographic). Try playing this game for a better understanding of how valuable this is to the survival of a herd.

While landmarks are probably important to elephants when they need to navigate, recent studies have shown that they tend to rely more on their senses of hearing and smell. In a study conducted by Dr Josh Plotnik from the University of Cambridge and founder of Think Elephants International and co-authored by 12-14 year-old students from a middle school in New York, the group tested whether elephants would follow visual clues given by humans in order to find food. While they failed to do that, they easily took verbal instructions (University of Cambridge).

In the instance of the Mali desert elephants, they can hear rainfall across great distances in the desert and can move within 24 hours to watering holes that have recently seen rainfall. Rain hitting the ground makes a sound within an infrasonic range inaudible to humans, but audible to elephants (Source: National Geographic).

According to Dr Plotnik, “If elephants are not primarily using sight to navigate their natural environment, human-elephant conflict mitigation techniques must consider what elephants’ main senses are and how elephants think so that they might be attracted or deterred effectively as a situation requires.”

What’s clear is that a lot more research is necessary.

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