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The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Life of the Wild Herds of Africa

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In The Elephant's Secret Sense, the internationally renowned field scientist Caitlin O'Connell tells the fascinating story of her unexpected discovery of a previously unknown mode of elephant communication. One day, while observing elephants at a waterhole in Namibia, O'Connell saw the matriarch suddenly turn, flatten her ears, and lift a leg off the ground. Several other females then turned to face the same direction, and soon another elephant appeared. Could elephants feel vibrations through the ground, literally 'listening' with their feet? Like Gorillas in the Mist and Born Free, The Elephant's Secret Sense is a fascinating memoir of the relationship between O'Connell and the animals she has studied for fourteen years.

241 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2007

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About the author

Caitlin O'Connell

15 books40 followers
Dr. Caitlin O'Connell is an Instructor at Harvard Medical School and a world renowned expert on elephants and vibrotactile sensitivity. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed nonfiction science memoir, The Elephant's Secret Sense (2007, Simon & Schuster--Free Press), which highlights a novel form of elephant communication as well as their conservation plight. Her narrative nonfiction photo book An Elephant's Life (2011, Lyons Press) uses a graphic novel approach to revealing subtle and intimate aspects of elephant society. Her co-authored nonfiction children's book, The Elephant Scientist (2011, Houghton Mifflin Children's Books) won five awards, including the Robert F. Sibert Honor and Horn Book Honor for 2012. A Baby Elephant In The Wild (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers) was a Junior Library Guild Select and winner of the 2015 NSTA award for Outstanding Science Trade Book for students K-12. Her second science memoir, Elephant Don: The Politics Of A Pachyderm Posse (University of Chicago Press) came out in 2015. Her debut novel, Ivory Ghosts, also came out in 2015 with Alibi, an ebook imprint of Random House. The sequel to Ivory Ghosts, White Gold, came out in February, 2017 and the first issue of the comic came out in May, 2018. Bridge to the Wild was published in August, 2016 with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. In her latest nonfiction book, Wild Rituals, 2020, O'Connell highlights the importance of ritual to all social animals including ourselves. O'Connell is the co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization, Utopia Scientific (www.utopiascientific.org), dedicated to research and science education. She is also co-director of Triple Helix Productions, with a mandate to develop more accurate and entertaining science content for the media. She has taught Science Writing for Stanford University and The New York Times Knowledge Network.

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5 stars
80 (29%)
4 stars
74 (27%)
3 stars
91 (33%)
2 stars
19 (7%)
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6 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 38 reviews
Profile Image for Brynn.
358 reviews8 followers
April 22, 2009
This book was not all I hoped for. Although the description of the author's life and how she studies the animals is quite interesting, the manner in which she told the story lost me. I thought in the beginning it was going to be a clear goal - discovering new information about the communication of the animals that would contribute to keeping them out of farmers' fields so that the animals weren't poached and the people didn't starve. Somewhere in the middle of the book, though, that purpose got lost. I found myself not really knowing what the purpose or goal of the second half of the book was. Still, information such as this made it worthwhile: baby elephants don't have a lot of control over their trunk at first (it has over 1,000 muscles) and thus the author often referred to it as a "wet noodle" and told stories of great humor and frustration about baby elephant calves becoming frustrated and the scenes that followed while trying to drink at the watering hole.
Profile Image for Neil Daniel.
10 reviews
September 28, 2017
The story of humans in the world is a sad tale of greed, ignorance and horrific abuse of the stewardship of the planet we have claimed as our birthright. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently, but always with devastating agency, we have driven a number of species to extinction. The elephant, cursed with the ‘white gold’ of ivory, has been wantonly hunted and killed, as much for sport as for the valuable ivory in their tusks. Additionally, the modern drive of globalization of industrial development and the increases in human populations have encroached on the elephant’s natural habitats, driving the animals into deserts and reservations.
Caitilin O’Connell’s book leaves nothing out as she describes the personal odyssey that led to her discovery of the way these intelligent and sensitive creatures communicate with each other and maintain their societies. O’Connell is a human, who happens to be a scientist, and whose research allows her to meet and interact with the natural world of the African savannah. In the process she gleans, and shares with us, a profound insight into that world.
I enjoyed this book, not as a science report of an important discovery about elephant communication, which it so clearly is, but as an entertaining story of one woman’s African adventures. Oh to be young again.
14 reviews3 followers
March 2, 2008
Elephants use their toenails to sense the seismic activity created by approaching animals. They also walk on tip-toes when quietly leaving an area of danger!
Profile Image for Susan.
790 reviews14 followers
November 1, 2016
Parts of this book were 3 stars but it was not a particularly compelling read.
648 reviews13 followers
January 12, 2023
Caitlin O'Connell describes her work with elephants over the years, much of which was centered on the elephant's use of low frequency sound to communicate. Elephants have two possible pathways to detect vibrations: either through bone-conducted “hearing” or through a sensory pathway not connected to the ear. The material is largely a collection of observations and could have used a summary of her findings.

Her observations are interesting however. Noting that the men of a local village "... were often sitting under a tree stirring the pot of local politics or getting drunk at the Khuka shops ...", she reflects that "Having once been a hunter-gatherer society, the agrarian lifestyle was a difficult adjustment for the men."

O'Connell was involved in trying to assist the establishment of local businesses in African villages. When making bundles of thatch for sale, the product was quite variable. However after complementing those with the best bundles, the "... other women smiled and nodded in agreement that this woman had the most beautiful bundles, and they were eager to follow suit."

At one point the author tries to understand whether elephants can detect the waves associated with earthquakes. After the 2004 quake in southeast Asia, there were reports of elephants behaving strangely an hour before the tsunami arrived. On the other hand, there were situations where other elephants were unaware of the quake. She speculates a consideration may be whether it is a negative or positive wave.

A Dr. Ikeya has been working with giant namazu or catfish which Japanese lore associate with earthquakes. He believes that the buildup of pressure of granite prior to an earthquake generates electromagnetic pulses that catfish can detect.

1 review
March 29, 2022
Overall, this was a pretty good book. I especially liked the first half. I learned a lot about elephants as well as some other scientific concepts. This book really shows you how much time and perseverance it takes to make a discovery like the one Caitlin O’Connel made.

There were a few spots in the book where the science was pretty confusing. In the second half of the book she began talking about things like estrous and musth, basically heat for male and female elephants, which was a little gross. Around the second half of the book we stopped hearing about her work with the farmers and never learned more about that which was a little disappointing.

I love the story, just wish it could be written a little differently.
Profile Image for Dolf van der Haven.
Author 20 books12 followers
April 7, 2022
I have no idea why I wanted to read this book, apart from Elephants 🐘 being my favourite animals.
In any case, I might as well have skipped it, because, despite having a pleasant style, it seems to be a random collection of the author's favourite fieldwork experiences. The parts that are actually about Elephants are quite repetitive and consist mostly of collecting their droppings and giving them funny names. These then get mixed up with random stories about vague tribal politics and car accidents. It doesn't seem anything connects to the rest of the book and nothing seems to form a complete story. As suddenly as the book starts with a story without context, as suddenly does it end without a conclusion.
3 reviews
March 29, 2022
I thought the first half-2/3 of the book was good. I found her discoveries about elephants very interesting. I was amazing to hear about the harsh conditions of being a researcher in the field in Africa. But the last half or third of the book I didn’t like that much. I talked a lot about elephants going into heat. It didn’t tell us a lot about the main goals of going to study these elephants. I thought it was gross. In the beginning I was happy to reas the book. But by the end I wanted it to be over. But I might still recommend reading it, even if you only read the first 2/3 of the book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Chris Bartholomew.
98 reviews1 follower
April 17, 2018
An interesting book, well written. The author spends 13 years researching a new theory of elephants communicating with their feet! A simplification to be sure, but apparently elephants use the tip toes of a foot to feel and "read" the vibrations in the ground. She lays out the lengthy process that science goes through to validate a theory. She also vividly describes the sensations of studying such large creatures up close.
Profile Image for Emily Levit.
63 reviews
May 7, 2023
While I respect this scientist and the amazing contributions she has made to understanding elephant societies and their seismic communications, this book in my opinion was kind of a mess. It was all over the place. There was no sense of chronological order. I could not keep straight what she was talking about from paragraph to paragraph sometimes. You can feel her heart for her work, but the book was disorienting most of the time.
Profile Image for Steph C.
23 reviews4 followers
September 16, 2017
I read this book 5 years ago and I remember being optimistic based on the jacket description. Elephants are one of my favourite animals and I have read many books about them. However the author did not translate her research into a captivating read. It was excruciating to get through and I commenced reading 4 other books before I finally managed to finish this one.
Profile Image for Steve Mayberry.
84 reviews2 followers
January 22, 2018
This was a slog. Vacillates between very simple declarative statements and stilted, academic-type prose. The sections of dialog are almost impossible to follow. And granted this is non-fiction, but not exempt from the need for some sort of dramatic structure

(But five stars+ for smart, well-intentioned research & efforts to reduce elephant/farmer conflict)
Profile Image for Ashley Kennedy.
397 reviews
September 19, 2021
I love elephants and love reading firsthand accounts of field biologists in Africa so this checked off those two boxes for me. The most interesting detail to me was that the author did her MS research on planthoppers (SAME!) and learned that despite the obvious differences between planthoppers and elephants, both communicate with conspecifics through the substrate (using sound). Pretty wild!
Profile Image for Michele Benson.
853 reviews
October 8, 2022
Namibia. How scientists study the behavior of elephants hoping to keep them away from the villagers crops. Studies related to the way elephants discern vibrations in the earth from afar and how they react to certain recorded elephant vocalizations. The way the scientists navigate village politics was especially interesting.
December 19, 2018
A little more memoir and a little less about the science of elephants' seismic communication than I wanted/expected, but I would still strongly recommend it. It's a great story that does a good job of touching all angles relating to her work.
236 reviews9 followers
August 6, 2017
There are parts of the book which I very much enjoyed, but overall the book seemed disjointed. I think I learned more about bull elephants in musth than I did about seismic communication.
Profile Image for Billy Russell.
3 reviews10 followers
October 27, 2018
As an elephant lover, I thought this book was extraordinarily inspiring and enlightening. A very wonderful adventure story.
Profile Image for Alayne.
283 reviews
December 29, 2020
The first half of the book was excellent loads of info and stories about Elephants ... second half was less interesting more about the research.
April 14, 2020
I think that for the public it will be an interesting book, showing how wild animal behaviouralist work while also giving a portrait of southern Africa. For an animal behaviouralist working in South Africa like me, the beginning of the book is precious, then it gets lost into the author's personal life and finally, it comes back to experiments on elephants but again from a more personal than a scientifical point of view.
248 reviews5 followers
May 4, 2013
If you're looking for a basic account of what it's like to do field research in Namibia and the Caprivi region of Zambia without being hit over the head constantly with conservation appeals, this book will do. This work encompasses two areas of research. One is devoted to elephant vocalizations and the other is related to the study of seismic communications between elephants.

The benefits of studying elephant vocalizations have an immediate impact on elephants interactions with humans, particularly farmers, in these areas. O'Connell determined that by recording elephant alarm vocalizations she could then use those recordings in play back mode to ward elephants off when they would wander too close to the local farmer's gardens. It was a natural barrier and would prevent farmers arming themselves against the giants.

Stemming from her observations of elephants during these studies, and also her prior work studying insect behavior, O'Connell noticed how at times elephants seemed to be listening with their feet. She speculated whether elephants can determine who/what may be headed nearby based on the placement of feet and the vibrations through the ground. Were elephants really listening and acting upon seismic vibration? Unlike the first area of research, monitoring an elephants reactions to vibration was not a well studied or documented area until O'Connell decided to start it.

I enjoyed the narrative flow of this work and it's not bogged down in any part with too much Science or too much landscape description or other complaints similar works might receive. She doesn't toot her own horn. It's written in a very direct, honest fashion and it makes for a quick, interesting read.

Profile Image for Papalodge.
328 reviews1 follower
January 18, 2014
The Smithsonian Channel featured The Elephant King (air date 3.06.2013)
Presented by Catlin O'Connell. Caitlin spent 40 days studying an elephant herd visiting a water hole. The king of the herd - Greg - has not been seen for four months. A new leader will need to take his place. The film/documentary's focus is on the male elephant behaviors.
By 2013, Caitlin has been studying the herds for 20 years. The documentary is really - the book - on film, that I had hoped to read in 2007. The photography is excellent. The storyline, screen play if you will, flows evenly and naturally. Had it been a book, I would give it a 4+ rating. The show will air again on 1.25.2014. 'Catch It if You Can'.

Expected the book to really focus on elephant behavior. While it did this, scientific discovery is the author's priority. Tribal politics, government funding, grants and endowments also were brought into the writing. The author has written an abreviated, mini-log of her research. It includes a references, often in great detail of,transect lines, Botswana Defense Force, elephant satellite tracking, SWAPO, SADF, CITES, various conservancies, low-frequency speakers, vibration testing at various decibels, USGS, elephant seismic communication, differential global positioning system DGPS, and so on.
I was hoping for a book that would stay focused on the elephant's interaction with each other and their awareness of their surroundsing and how they communicate over long distances. When science uncovers more of these things, such a book will be written. Maybe in our lifetime.
Profile Image for K.
354 reviews3 followers
February 15, 2008
While observing a family group of elephants in the wild, Caitlin O'Connell, a young field scientist, noticed a peculiar listening behavior. A matriarch she had been watching for months turned her massive head and lifted her foot off the ground. As she scanned the horizon, the other elephants followed suit, all facing the same direction. O'Connell soon made a groundbreaking discovery: the elephants were "listening through limbs," feeling the ripples of the earth's surface for approaching friends and enemies. Through their feet, toenails, trunks, and other, subtler modes of communication, these enormous animals were communicating to one another, demonstrating the vital importance of social relationships in their lives." "An unforgettable journey of scientific discovery, The Elephant's Secret Sense takes you deep into the wilds of Namibia, from the tops of isolated, desert observation towers to the jaws and claws of ravenous lions to aerial expeditions and dusty highways, where the naturalists do their difficult work in a troubled land threatened by expanding human populations and unstable politics. Resonant with the powerful calls of the mysterious elephant, this is a story about the resilience of nature and the inspiring, astonishing, and often heartbreaking places where humans and wild animals come together
Profile Image for Sue.
1,067 reviews
October 24, 2012
Caitlin O'Connell went to Namibia at the request of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism to study elephant behavior, movement, and interactions. The study in Etosha led to a study in the Caprivi working with farmers trying to find ways to prevent destruction of crops by the elephants. It was during the Etosha study that O'Connell wondered if the elephants were communicating by picking up signals sent through the ground. Much of her research in subsequent summers was to prove her theory.
I was disappointed. While I enjoyed the first part of the book where she describes her observations of elephant behavior and then her time in the Caprivi working with the farmers, the rest of the book seems to read like a thesis paper as she describes the way she set up and conducted her experiments and why certain parameters did or didn't work. On a personal note, reading town names was fun from my own trips in Namibia, and even in Etosha Park, and I can understand her unwillingness to leave at the end of the test season.
Profile Image for Dee.
611 reviews12 followers
February 19, 2015
Wow, so much to learn about elephants!! I mean so much MORE to learn. This book is basically like getting your toes wet in the ocean, it's left me with more questions than when I started and an eagerness to learn more. The only thing I did not like so much about the book was the vast amount of technical information. I found the writing to be awkward to times as I could feel the author struggling to relate her knowledge into some semblance of a story. I had trouble picking out the one cohesive theme in the book, she started out purposefully but then seemed to go off on a tangent and she lost me a little bit. This lady knows a lot about elephants, I get it! But I think she needs to split up her knowledge into a dozen or so detailed books instead of putting bits and pieces into one. Overall, not entirely what I expected but if you love elephants and enjoy learning (and don't mind technical language!) then this will be an enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,350 reviews
July 2, 2015
I was drawn to this book more because the scientific work was done in Namibia (where we are visiting this summer) than interest in elephants. But O'Connell does make the elephants and the scientific work very interesting. The complexity of the research, especially doing it in the bush, was fascinating as was the way the tools available changed in the time she was writing about. The scientific work is placed in the conquest of the political struggles of the time in Namibia and Angola - though there could have been more about. Also, the sadly evolving impact of AIDS in the early '90's. One thing missing for me - she starts her work as a project to get local people to accept and learn to deal with the elephants who have been destroying crops. But that story gets lost as the books goes on and I would have liked to know more about how her research benefited local people - or if it didn't.
Profile Image for Bev.
460 reviews18 followers
September 6, 2012
Another fascinating book about elephants. O'Connell spent 14 years studying Namibian elephants and their methods of communication. She became fascinated when observing a group of elephants, noticing that the matriarch would raise her foot and check the surrounding area, and all the others in the group would do the same thing. This led to experiments which showed how elephants use their feet to pick up vibrations in the ground (seismic communication), standing on their toes when stressed, increasing the strength of the signal they are receiving. This book is a combination of easy to understand scientific facts, compelling emotional stories, and the politics involved in the constant battle between the elephants and the farmers, whose crops are routinely raided.
1,149 reviews
September 16, 2012
O’Connell and her husband, Tim Rodwell, spent many years in the Etosha National Park and the Caprivi Game Park in Namibia studying elephants. Early in their stay, Caitlin noticed how the elephants placed their feet with their toenails to the ground as they alerted to something going on around them, and she formed the hypothesis that the elephants were “hearing” through vibrations in the ground felt by their feet. Here she recounts her successful attempts to prove that this is true. I was interested in the book on a personal level because we have visited Namibia and several of the towns near Etosha, but also in the careful way Caitlin set up her experiments and all the various tests she did with the elephants. It was impressive to read about their very careful scientific methods.

29 reviews1 follower
December 28, 2007
The story of a white woman's work on elephant conservation in Namibia. Along the way she discovers a novel form of communication used by the elephants. I was starting grad school in the same program when the author was finishing and was only vaguely aware of her work. So it was cool to see her book on the shelf at the library and learn more about it. The story and subject matter are fascinating, but ultimately I was left unsatisfied by the writing, which came across as too detached. I felt like the parts of her experience that would have been most interesting to me were left, or edited, out.
Profile Image for Mary.
77 reviews
August 28, 2008
If you love elephants this book is for you. It does have some very interesting facts in it. Now I know that elephants love acacia trees for instance. I also liked its discussion of sound through vibration not only in elephants but in us as well.( Apparently there are institutes for the hearing impaired that have special wooden dance floors so that the hearing impaired can dance to the beat.) However, the new and interesting knowledge was for me to few and far between.
179 reviews5 followers
July 24, 2010
Also picked up from the Strand's outdoor shelves. Recently read and quite enjoyed the proof copy. Don't know if things were tightened up in the final. I found the individual stories and to be super-interesting and well told, but the overall structure to be lacking. (There are pieces that feel missing and others that feel extra). Still, it was a great close-up view of the elephants and also fed my recent location/wilderness/mostly Africa reading urge.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 38 reviews

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