Low-level vertical changes in temperature and wind exert powerful and predictable influences on the area ensonified by animal vocalizations. Computer modelling of low-frequency sound propagation in measured atmospheric conditions predicts that the calls of the savanna elephant at these frequencies can have ranges exceeding 10 km and that the calls will be highly directional in the presence of wind shear. Calling area is maximized under temperature inversions with low wind speeds. Calling area changes substantially over 24 h periods; on any given day, the calling area undergoes an expansion and contraction which may be as large as one order of magnitude. This cycle is modulated by topography, regional weather patterns, seasonality and possibly by climate variation. Similar influences affect the somewhat higher-frequency calls of lions and may be a selective pressure towards their crepuscular and nocturnal calling behaviour. Coyotes and wolves, which also live in areas with strong and prevalent nocturnal temperature inversions, show similar calling patterns, maximizing their chances of being heard over the longest possible distances. The pronounced dawn and evening vocalization peaks in other animals including birds, frogs and insects may reflect the same influences in combination with other factors which selectively limit high-frequency sound propagation. Atmospheric conditions therefore need to be taken into account in many field studies of animal behaviour. A simplified method for estimating sound propagation during field studies is presented.