Written for Jabulani, published here: The Silent Language of Elephants & Other Animals ~ The Jacobson Organ
Making Sense of Elephants
We’ve always known that elephants relied on their Big 5 senses of taste, sight, hearing, smell and touch in different ways – senses that are essential to everyday animal life, that complement one another and help them to track down fresh new grass and leaves to munch on. Senses that are used in search of ripe marulas and underground water in the dry season, that are vital in the all-important struggle to remain safe from predators, to hear the give-away rustle and detect that invisible lion in a wind-carried warning.
But these animals have a sixth sense too…
One that is used in those most important of pursuits – love, romance and procreation. Animals communicate through chemical or olfactory methods, such as through pheromones. Chemicals that provide information and deliver several messages, pheromones are released in various bodily fluids, such as sweat, urine, secretions from elephant’s temporal glands and in dung. To decipher these messages, however, a special organ is needed – the Jacobson organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ.
The Jacobson’s organ is a patch of sensory cells in the main nasal chamber and detects heavy moisture-borne odour particles. One of the ways an animal can expose the organ to a scent or pheromone is to open its mouth and curl back its upper lip while inhaling through the mouth, thereby capturing the airborne chemicals – an action called the flehmen response, resembling, somewhat, the peanut-butter-stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth grimace. This weird grimace, displayed by animals as diverse as giraffes and the family cat, is required to engage an extra sense that does so much more than warn of nearby smelly predators.
The science of it…
To insert chemically active samples into the ducts of the vomeronasal organ to process the chemical messages, the elephant moisturises the trunk tip with nasal mucus, and mixes it with the urine or other body secretions. Then the tip of the trunk is placed in the mouth to contact the mucus-filled opening of the vomeronasal duct in the upper part of the mouth. This duct leads to the vomeronasal organ where the nerve endings are located allowing the sensing of the chemicals (pheromones) contained in the solution.
Snakes collect chemicals in the air too and transfer them to their vomeronasal organ by way of their flicking two-pronged tongues. Zebras flare their lips, exposing their teeth in a grin that raises an image of trips to the dentist. Lions do it while displaying their toothy weapons and breathing in a heady mix of urine and oestrus-signalling hormones.
As for elephants, a male may collect giveaway secretions from the pheromone-rich urine of females using his trunk. He will then place his trunk into his mouth, up to that clever little organ mechanism, to collect information, such as the readiness of the female to consummate their relationship. The entire existence, reproduction and survival of the elephant species is dependent on this ability to read the signals.
Picking up on pheromones in this way – through the Jacobson organ – also helps young elephants to instantly recognise their mothers and enables elephants to communicate by putting their trunks into each other’s mouths. If you’ve ever seen elephants in this display, now you know what they’re up to.
We can only guess as to the content of the chemical messages that animals pass between themselves…
We watch them, and listen, and try to discern all that we can. Through time and research, we’re better able to create an idea of the secret languages of not only elephants but all animals in the African wilderness. While we don’t have our own sixth sense (primates do not seem to have a working vomeronasal organ, although vestigial remnants show that we did once), we have our own ability to ponder, imagine, feel and construct the puzzle, piece by piece, signal by signal.
“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around. Love is in the air, every sight and every sound.” – John Paul Young