Katy Payne

Researcher in Bioacoustics, Cornell University; Founder, The Elephant Listening Project.

Katherine Payne

Title: “Evidence of Mind in Humpback Whales and Forest Elephants.”
Abstract: It seems that we lack a uniformly accepted definition of consciousness, but most attempts at such a definition include the notion of awareness. This was the starting-point for Donald Griffin, whose 1976 book, The Question of Animal Awareness: Evolutionary Continuity of Mental Experience, laid out a set of arguments for awareness in non-human animals. Griffin had a double purpose, which underlay most of his work during the last decades of his life. As a scientist he felt that the robotic explanation of all non-human animal behavior then in vogue was misguided; as a humanist he felt that disallowing consciousness to all except the human species was a way of justifying human abuse of animals. If consciousness was shown to exist as widely as Griffin believed, that would be a step toward our species becoming more humane. Don was a friend of mine throughout his long quest and took an interest in my field studies of whales (~15 years) and elephants (~10 years). I’ll present a highlight from each of these studies for your consideration.

Whales:  The seasonal songs of humpback whales change rapidly and continuously, and it appears that individual whales listen to their neighbors’ and their own voices with awareness of progressive trends in their population-wide culture. I’ll illustrate my hunch about this using selected recordings from humpbacks near Bermuda and near Hawaii over several decades.

Elephants: Several thousand forest elephants in the Central African Republic have been identified and followed over 2+ decades by Andrea Turkalo: since 1990 the Elephant Listening Project has been adding the acoustic dimension to recordings of these elephants’ behavior.  I’ll show a few video excerpts that indicate acoustic recognition among individuals, and differential responsiveness to other elephants’ calls depending on relatedness and circumstance.

Bio: Katharine Boynton Payne has spent much of her life studying very large animals in remote places. Starting in 1970, she was involved for 14 years in recording and describing the ever-changing songs of humpback whales. While this work was under way Katy made a bizarre observation that led to a discovery about elephants: they make infrasonic calls–calls below the range of human hearing–which play a role in their ability to coordinate their societies over long distances. This finding resulted in 24 years of research on elephant communication in the savannas of Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, and in the forests of Central Africa. Out of the Central African work came a conservation-oriented initiative called the Elephant Listening Project (ELP), which Payne founded and led for five years. ELP’s initial work demonstrates that while deep forests cannot be surveyed and monitored visually, a great deal can be learned about the composition and condition of animal populations by continuously recording their calls. Payne is the author of Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, and a children’s book, Elephants Calling. A third book is now creeping toward completion.

Animal Consciousness: Evidence and Implications

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