03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Decoding The Secret Language Of Elephants (VIDEO)

Field biologist Andrea Turkalo is the world's leading expert on forest elephants, and she's taking her observations to another level. Turkalo and a team of scientists in Central Africa are attempting to understand the secret, sometimes inaudible, language of elephants, in an effort to put to together the world's first elephant dictionary. 60 Minutes Bob Simon joined Turkalo to learn more about the animal's complex language.

Turkalo takes Simon to the Dzanga Clearing in Central Africa, where more than 50 forest elephants surround them in a setting "straight out of Jurassic Park," Simon added. To sort out the elephants' vocalizations, the team has to really understand the elephants' behavior, Turkalo said. If they can match elephant sounds with behaviors that they see, them they'll be able to classify them into categories.

And what are some of the sounds?

"Well there's low frequency rumbles," Turkalo told Simon. "It sounds like a big cat purring. And those are the vocalizations that help keep groups in contact with each other. And some of these big bulls, when they go into musth, which is this sexual state they make a special rumble which is very low and very pulsing."

But these are only the sounds that are audible to the human ear, which make up a small fraction of elephant vocalizations, according to Peter Wrege, a behavioral biologist from Cornell University.

"The base of their vocalization is infrasonic. In other words, the frequency on which their call is built is below what we can hear," Wrege said.

At 11:20 into the video, Simon plays a recording of what the clearing sounds like at night, where you can only hear the crickets and birds. Turkalo's team then speeds that recording up three times faster, and you can hear the elephant's incessant rumblings fill the air.

And that's just one of their fascinating techniques. Watch the full interview here:

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