The Songs of Whales and Elephants

“The ocean is really huge. When you get out on a little boat, you know it.
You’re clinging to a cork. And out there, rolling around and swimming through and perfectly at home in the waves are these enormous animals. And by golly, they’re singing. And so what that has done for me is to make me feel that what lies ahead is absolutely limitless. We are not at the pinnacle of human knowledge.
We are just beginning.”  –  Katy Payne

Photo by Silvana Palacios on

Katy Payne is an acoustic biologist who has studied whales off the wild coast of Argentina and studied elephants in the rainforests of Africa. She discovered that humpback whales compose ever-changing songs. Similarly, she found that elephants also communicate across long distances by way of sounds that, like whale songs, are beyond human hearing. They are low sounds – infrasound – below our hearing range.

She is the author of Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants which tells the stories of elephants and their families that she has studied. They have names and personalities and are very social creatures. That includes their complex interactions with humans, especially those who love and protect them.

Photo by FUTURE KIIID on

I heard a rebroadcast of a radio program about her work and learned that she is a practicing Quaker. She is also a student of the spiritual philosopher Gurdjieff. Is there a spiritual side to studying nature? I believe there is and I think that might be particularly true of someone who studies nature and wildlife by listening, as opposed to capturing and dissecting a species, for example.

She studied both biology and music as an undergrad, so it seems fitting that she was one of the early group of scientists that discovered that whales communicate by song. More importantly, it was found that those songs are not something whales are born with and repeat over and over. The whales are “composers” and the songs are constantly evolving.

During the mating season, male humpbacks emit vocalizations that sound to human ears like barks, chirps, and moans. A whale’s unique song slowly evolves over a period of years, never returning to the same sequence of notes even after decades.

Joshua Smith, a doctoral student at the University of Queensland, Australia,  investigated songs of humpback whales during three seasons. “Singers are joining females with calves more often and singing for a much longer duration with them than with any other group,” Smith said, but he thinks it’s more likely that the songs are directed to females showing them the males’ fitness, based on their song qualities and allowing them to compare the males and choose the one they consider the fittest.

They are singing love songs

This American Life

This American Life is hosted by Ira Glass, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1959, and got into radio, he says, “totally by accident.”

He had just finished his freshman year of college, was looking for a summer job with an ad agency or a TV station. and managed to talk his way into an internship with NPR – despite the fact he’d never listened to public radio. He graduated from Brown University, and continued working for public radio as newscast writer, editor, producer of All Things Considered, reporter, and substitute host.

He launched This American Life which features several “acts” in playing out an in-depth play that looks at the lives of ordinary people that are sometimes sad, sometimes ironic, sometimes funny. Though I have a big backlog of episodes to still listen to, I try to listen to a show each week.

From the show’s website

This American Life is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations to about 1.8 million listeners. It is produced by Chicago Public Media, distributed by Public Radio International, and has won all of the major broadcasting awards. It is also often the most popular podcast in the country, with around 700,000 people downloading each week.

From 2006-2008, we produced a television version of This American Life on the Showtime network, which won three Emmys. We’re also the co-producers, with NPR News, of the economics podcast and blog Planet Money. And a half dozen stories from the radio show are being developed into films.

The radio show and TV show follow the same format. There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe. Probably the best way to understand the show is to start at our favorites page, though we do have longer guides to our radio show and our TV show. If you want to dive into the hundreds of episodes we’ve done over the years, there’s an archive of all our old radio shows and listings for all our TV episodes, too.

A few sample episodes:

Held Hostage A kidnapping victim in Colombia spends his nights listening to a radio station that plays messages from the families of the kidnapped. That and other stories of people held captive—by criminals, by paperwork…

Play the Part  Stories of people who decide to flip their personalities and do the exact opposite of what they normally do.

What I Did For Love Love makes us do crazy things. But not this crazy. Stories of people going to extremes as they fall in love, chase love down, and try to make sense of it—including a teenager who falls for…

Ira Glass is also the editor of an anthology called The New Kings of Nonfiction.

Talking Stick


I read an article in an educational journal and it mentioned that some elementary school teachers have adapted using the talking stick with their students. Now, the talking stick was originally used in Native North American tribes at council meetings. It was a decorated stick that was passed to a speaker as a courtesy so that no one would interrupt a chief when he was speaking. The talking stick was then passed to the next person who wished to speak.

The talking stick is not about talking – it’s about listening.

Did you read Lord of the Flies by William Golding. The conch serves the same purpose.

Usually, the talking stick was decorated with eagle feathers and beads, but some tribes used a talking feather, or pipe, wampum belt, sacred shell or other object. The object itself wasn’t the important part of the exercise.

I have also read that an “answering feather” could be used. It was held by the person speaking and passed to the person asked to answer the speaker’s question. Each person needed to listen closely, so that when they spoke they did repeat information or ask irrelevant questions.

(More information on the symbolic meanings of materials used in Native American talking sticks)