Initially a researcher of whales with her then husband Roger Payne, Payne turned to investigating elephants after observing them at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. In 1984, she and other researchers discovered that elephants make infrasonic calls to one another at distances as far as ten kilometers. The calls aided in travel and mating. Payne founded the ELP to use these calls as a means of measuring the behavior of elephants and the size of the elephant population. Payne was featured in the 1984 PBS series, The Voyage of the Mimi, starring a young Ben Affleck.