George Aranda Interviews Patricia Newman
Special thanks to Patricia Newman for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Eavesdropping on Elephants
#1 – What was the impetus for writing Eavesdropping on Elephants?
Years ago I visited Kenya and came upon an elephant skull. It was huge! Perhaps the elephant died from natural causes or perhaps it was poached. The tusks were gone. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated by these animals. They remember complicated migration patterns. Matriarchs lead the herd to water and food. Mothers care for their babies with something approaching tenderness. And elephants maintain a complex web of family relationships that rivals humans. They also appear to experience joy and grief.
Another catalyst is the newness of the forest elephant species; most people don’t know anything about them. Unlike savanna elephants who travel in large herds of females, juveniles, and babies, forest elephants travel in small family groups of a few individuals. They meet members of their extended family at forest clearings to catch up on the news. Forest elephants travel miles eating fruit and defecating, which deposits fruit seeds far and wide. Andrea Turkalo, one of the scientists in Eavesdropping on Elephants, calls them the architects of the forest because without them the forest wouldn’t exist.
What’s not to love?
#2 – How did you get involved with the Elephant Listening Project which is central to your book?
My daughter, Elise, used to work for the Elephant Listening Project (ELP) as an undergraduate at Cornell University. Elise sat at a computer with headphones on her ears and catalogued forest sounds, much like the students pictured on page 38 of the book. Her stories about the scientists and their work piqued my interest, and I knew I had to write a book about them one day.
#3 – Your book focuses as much on the way that scientists collect and use data as much as the science facts. Is it important for you to convey the way that scientists doscience?
Absolutely! Field scientists are superheroes in my opinion. Their scientific questions often take them to inhospitable places, yet they endure rough conditions to gather precious data. They often have to improvise on the spot when rain, mud, or even a curious elephant interferes and alters their plans. Plus, the whole matrix of scientific thinking–questions, observations, experiments, dialogue, more questions, more observations–appeals to me. The scientific process of discovery can be messy, but it’s also elegant in the way scientists follow facts and form conclusions based on those facts—even if the facts take them in unexpected directions.
#4 – The book focuses on our understanding of the elephants’ calls, in particular the importance of infrasound. What is the importance to understanding their communication? What impact will this knowledge have on us, them and their environment?
The role of infrasound (sounds too low for humans to hear) is much better understood in savanna elephants than forest elephants. ELP conducted some studies that indicate infrasound doesn’t travel nearly as far in the forest. So why have the ability? There must be a reason, and ELP wants to find out. Perhaps infrasound travels farther than we think. Perhaps elephants have “cut off men” (à la baseball) to intercept the infrasound and rebroadcast it so news travels farther. No one knows. And that’s what I love about science. The fact that no one knows makes it worth discovering.
ELP’s acoustic listening devices record all audible forest sound, but no video. As ELP listens to the recordings they can pick out which sounds belong to elephants, and determine which parts of the forest they are using. The elephants’ presence or absence in various locations is valuable by itself to assist park managers in making conservation decisions, but ELP wants to go further.
That’s why Katy Payne’s initial collaboration with Andrea Turkalo was so pivotal. Andrea knows thousands of elephants by sight—their habits, their family relationships, their ages. When paired with the acoustic recordings Katy’s team made, they were able to assign meanings to many of the sounds, such as alarm calls, infant distress calls, and greetings. ELP is not yet sure where this “dictionary” aspect will take them, but they hope it will provide even more information to help save forest elephants.
#5 – The book is filled with QR codes which allow access to digital online information such as videos. How did access to this change or influence the way you wrote the book?
Most nonfiction books for kids have back matter that includes further reading and links to online articles or video, but I always wonder if kids pay attention to it.
ELP’s audio and video files bring young readers inside the forest to observe elephants just as the scientists did. That level of cool was too much for me to pass up. I purposely sought out specific elephant communication stories in which I could combine text, images, audio, and video to demonstrate field science for kids. I think it would be fun for kids to watch the videos and jot down observations. What great practice for future scientists, right?
Teachers: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology created a free curriculum guide with several dynamite activities that integrate science and language arts. (How do the Lab of Ornithology and elephants go together? The common link is acoustic listening!)
6 – What future books/projects are you working on?
Good question! I am working on proposals for three different books, but they’re all still secret. I hope my editor likes them!