Caitlin O’Connell, elephant researcher

by | Jun 15, 2016

Caitlin O’Connell—one of the elephant experts featured in “Mind of a Giant,” a Nat Geo Wild documentary special premiering June 19—recalls how she did not grow up with a particular fascination or love for elephants, noting her earlier academic work was in entomology. But a research job with the Namibian government trying to help address an elephant issue (they wereAnotherOConnell invading farms and eating the corn crops), launched her down the path, though it really was more a matter of galvanizing a longstanding interest O’Connell had developed in animal communication, especially long-distance communication. She has since spent some 25 years studying elephants in the wild, with one focus being how acutely sensitive elephants are to underground vibrations, part of a communication system that helps them detect potential threats over great distances. To help illustrate this, there’s a segment of “Mind of a Giant” wherein O’Connell and her colleagues issues a simulated subsonic warning call, alerting elephants that there is a lion in the area; before long, the elephants decide to leave. O’Connell explains in our conversation why only that herd responded that way, relative to how a herd further away might react—and, in response to my question about whether these sounds are different Minds-of-Giants-Vulcan-06from herd to herd, like dialects—she draws a parallel to how we might respond if a stranger yelled “fire,” compared with how we’d react if, say, our aunt yelled the warning. O’Connell also discusses another emphasis of her research: the behavior of bull elephants, and the virtues of young ones being mentored by elder bulls. She touches on other aspects of “Mind of a Giant,” including how African elephants fare in mirror recognition tests, part of an ongoing study by researcher Josh Plotnik. (,

IMG_3546ALSO: I spoke briefly with Jessica Young, founder of InFURno!, an iPhone app that assists users in buying cruelty free products, and provides an array of related information. For those without iPhones, there’s also a corresponding Facebook page, and Young noted this is largely a solo and self-funded effort—so to develop the app for other devices and add further elements, she would welcome financial contributions. (,

COMEDY CORNER: Paul F. Tomkins’ “Alternative Pets” (

MUSIC: Rebekah Pulley’s “Talking Animals Theme,” Adrian Belew’s “Elephants,” instrumentals

NAME THAT ANIMAL TUNE: James Taylor’s “Mona”


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