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Elephants Can Detect Rainfall From Incredible Distances

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulshaffner/380365876/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">Paul Shaffner/</a><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulshaffner/" style="text-decoration: none;">Flickr</a>/CC BY 2.0</p>

Elephants like Raju might not actually weep, but they're no slouches when it comes to sensing falling water far away. In fact, as researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE on Thursday, elephants can sense rain storms from up to 60 miles away (that's like standing in the middle of Philadelphia and being able to tell if it's raining in Atlantic City, N.J.).

To get a sense of how elephants migrate through their habitat, American and Australian environmental scientists outfitted nine elephants with GPS trackers and followed the animals for seven years. In northern Namibia, a distinct increase in rainfall marks the start of the wet and dry seasons. At the onset of the wet season, the elephants changed their migration patterns; however, they did not "leave their dry season range or head towards the early rainstorms," the authors write, which may be due to the "recent and extreme social dislocation suffered by this population." Poaching is a critical issue for the elephants in this area.

(Credit: Garstang et al.)

The researchers hypothesize that the elephants' heightened sense of hearing allows them to react to thunderstorms before they approach. (Elephants are also good sniffers, but sensing rain by scent would depend on less-predictable wind patterns.)

Given the limitations of tracking a handful of animals via GPS, the authors call for additional studies to confirm the way elephants react to rainfall. But, as Cyril Christo points out in Orion Magazine, Kenyan legends have linked elephants and rain for years: "The Turkana believe that the elephant is next to God," Christo writes, "and that the sighting of an elephant signals rain is imminent."