Feb. 18 - The elephant's vocal folds work in a similar way to those of humans, according to a study conducted in Vienna. A team led by voice scientist Christian Herbst, now of the University of Olomouc in the Czech Republic, used the donated larynx of a dead elephant to study the process of vocalisation, which he says opens new possibilities for researching oice projection problems in people. Jim Drury reports.
Scientists have long wondered how the elephant makes its guttural infrasonic call. UPSOT: RUMBLING Now researchers at the University of Vienna believe they have the answer - the pachyderms' large vocal folds vibrate when air blows past them - just as human folds do. Biologist Angela Stoeger has studied elephant vocalisation for years. SOUNDBITE (English) ANGELA STOEGER (PRON: SCHTOO-GER), BIOLOGIST AT UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA, SAYING: "The most common vocalisation is the low frequency rumble, with the fundamental frequencies in the infra-sonic range, so below the range of human hearing." To find out how the animal does it, Stoeger took part in a unique experiment, devised by voice scientist Christian Herbst. Their team took a larynx donated from a zoo and attached it to Herbst's custom-made larynx laboratory. UPSOT: MACHINE SOUNDBITE (English) CHRISTIAN HERBST, VOICE SCIENTIST AT PALACKY UNIVERSITY, AND FOUNDER OF LARYNX LAB AT UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA, SAYING: "We got the larynx, we cleaned it up, we mounted it on a vertical tube and then we blew humidified, heated, air through the trachea. We had to adduct the vocal folds so that we changed from a breathing position to a phonatory position and then the vocal folds started to vibrate and we could document everything with sound, with high speed video recordings and other methods." Their footage, recorded internally, clearly shows how the folds behave. Herbst says his team disproved the theory that an elephant's low-level rumbling is caused by regular contraction and relaxation of laryngeal muscles. SOUNDBITE (English) CHRISTIAN HERBST, VOICE SCIENTIST AT PALACKY UNIVERSITY, AND FOUNDER OF LARYNX LAB AT UNIVERSITY OF VIENNA, SAYING: "You can imagine that this works like a flag in the wind, for instance. So you've got some air flow and that actually sets the tissue in vibration and the pressure changes locally created between the vocal folds they are progapagated through the mouth of the elephant or through the vocal tract and out of the mouth and maybe even also out of the trunk, and that's what then is what we perceive as the sound." And Herbst says broadly speaking, it works the same way in humans, despite the obvious anatomical differences. He says further research, using the elephant as a model, could lead to new methods of voice coaching in humans, making the most of the similarities between man and beast.