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Ear flaps and earthquakes: how do elephants communicate?

Elephants are renowned for their remarkable communication abilities, and many have taken this as testament to their high emotional intelligence. Last week, we reviewed a recent study originating from here in Kenya in which evidence that elephant assign each other personal names was presented.

It, of course, doesn’t surprise us, at the Tsavo Trust, that elephants are capable of behaviour as clearly indicative of a mature emotional intelligence as this. We did, however, find the study extremely interesting. If elephant give each other personalised names, what else do they do and say about each other?

That’s what led us onto the study of elephant communication so, without further ado, here’s what we discovered when we researched the different ways in which elephant communicate with one another.

In elephant communication, tactile communication is key

In the animal kingdom, tactile communication plays a vital role in forging bonds and expressing emotions like aggression and affection. Elephants exhibit this beautifully. When greeting each other, elephant have been observed gently stroking or intertwining their trunks. Their versatile noses are also used to explore various body parts, from mouths to temporal glands and even genitals, conveying a wealth of information during meetings or moments of excitement.

Additionally, elephant mothers employ tactile discipline, using trunk slaps, kicks, and shoves when disciplining
younger elephant. Young calves often lean against their mothers, seeking comfort and reassurance.

Elephants also communicate by use of a ‘visual vocabulary’

Elephants employ highly visible cues to communicate their emotions, particularly when they wish to convey distress or aggression. These visual signals include raising their heads, spreading their ears wide, shaking their heads vigorously, and snapping their ears. Conversely, when an elephant wishes to show submissiveness, it does the opposite, lowering its head and trunk while flattening its ears.

Elephants communicate with sounds below the range of human hearing

Elephants’ acoustic communication is a fascinating realm of study. While they can produce audible sounds like trumpets during times of distress, their primary form of acoustic interaction revolves around something known as ‘infrasound’. Infrasound comprises extremely low-frequency sounds that can travel for several kilometres.

These frequencies are beyond the range of human hearing. Scientists have identified various infrasound calls, including the ‘Let’s go’ rumble used by the matriarch to encourage the herd to move again, the ‘musth’ call used by males to ward off potential rivals, and postcopulatory sounds, as well as many more.

Infrasound insights: the mechanics of infrasound

For a long time scientists were puzzled on the mechanics behind infrasounds, they have now discovered that it stems from elephant’s elongated vocal cords within the larynx, a mechanism akin to human vocalisation. Due to the elephants’ massive larynx, these vocalizations occur at remarkably low frequencies.

The vibrations in an elephant’s larynx resemble the sounds humans make when crying, screaming, or singing, including irregular grating vibrations. These parallels with human vocalization emphasize the complexity of elephant communication, highlighting the need to further understand elephant vocal communication.

Ear flaps and earthquakes

Elephants are able to supplement the transfer of acoustic information through a very interesting way, using seismic waves. Their feet contain substantial cartilaginous fat pads that act as seismic sensors. This adaptation enables them to detect ground vibrations, expanding their range of communication significantly. While the full implications of this ability remain mysterious, scientists believe it aids elephants in detecting other herds and valuable resources such as water. Reports even suggest that elephants can sense earthquakes and tsunamis before they occur.

Like many other animals, elephants transit information through chemical signals

Lastly, elephants transmit information through chemical signals found in faeces, urine, and glands.
During musth, a bull elephant emits a pungent odour from its temporal glands, capturing the
interest of females. Elephants can investigate specific scents by inhaling them into their trunks and
then expelling them over their vomeronasal organ on the roof of their mouths.

In conclusion, elephants’ communication encompasses tactile, visual, acoustic, seismic, and chemical
channels. Their intricate modes of expression underline the depth of their social and emotional lives,
inspiring ongoing research into this captivating realm of the animal kingdom.

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