Katharine Payne

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Katharine Payne 2009

Katharine 'Katy' Boynton Payne (born 1937) is a researcher in the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University. Payne studied music and biology in college and after a decade doing research in the Savannah elephant country in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia, she founded Cornell's Elephant Listening Project in 1999.[1]


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.

In 2004, Payne's initial recordings of elephants were selected as one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.

Whale Song Research[edit]

Katy Payne and her husband worked at sea to Bermuda in 1968. With the help of a Navy engineer, Frank Watlington monitored hydrophones many miles into the sea to capture the sounds of the humpback whales. After 31 years of analyzing the recordings. Payne discovered that the whale songs rhyme and their predictable ways in which the whales change their songs each season.[2] The spectograms of the whale voices showed peaks, valleys, and gaps. The visual representation of the whales vocalization looked like melodies and rhythms according to Payne.[3]

The Elephant Listening Project[edit]

The Elephant Listening Project was founded in 1984 when Katy Payne began her work researching elephants in the Portland Zoo, where she discovered that the elephants communicate in low frequencies. After four months in Portland, Conrnell University's acoustic biologists Carl Hopkins and Bob Capranica partnered up with Payne and recorded and measured the infrasonic communication and behavior of the elephants. By 1999 Payne published her elephant discoveries in her book Silent Thunder, then the Elephant Listening Project was officially founded in the Laboratory of Ornithology to focus on long term research on forest elephants.

In 2005 Katy Payne retired and Peter Werge took over the project. Since then the ELP has been listening and studying elephant communication in the forests of Central Africa, still applying Payne's insights to further her findings and preserve the conservation of elephants. Co-founder of the ELP, Andrea Turkalo studied the population of forests elephants and was able to catalogue 4,000 elephants along with their family trees and social connections to other elephant families.

Another major site the ELP monitors is in Northern Congo, where increasing human activity is a threat to forests elephants. The ELP and other academic institutions us ARU's (acoustic recording unit) to study the response of the forests elephants to the development of extracting their habitat. The ELP claims that the data from these studies will be an important factor to attempt the conservation of forrest elephants.[4]


  1. ^ "Katy Payne - In the Presence of Elephants and Whales". On Being with Krista Tippett. Retrieved September 3, 2015. 
  2. ^ Brody, Jane E. (1993-11-09). "SCIENTIST AT WORK: Katy Payne; Picking Up Mammals' Deep Notes". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-12-10. 
  3. ^ Twitter, Bill McQuay Twitter Christopher Joyce. "It Took A Musician's Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls". NPR.org. Retrieved 2015-12-10. 
  4. ^ "The Elephant Listening Project". www.birds.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2015-12-10. 

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