Christy Ullrich, National Geographic NewsWatch, April 24, 2013
Elephants may use a variety of subtle movements and gestures to communicate with one another, according to researchers who have studied the big mammals in the wild for decades. To the casual human observer, a curl of the trunk, a step backward, or a fold of the ear may not have meaning. But to an elephant—and scientists like Joyce Poole—these are signals that convey vital information to individual elephants and the overall herd.
Biologist and conservationist Joyce Poole and her husband, Petter Granli, both of whom direct ElephantVoices, a charity they founded to research and advocate for conservation of elephants in various sanctuaries in Africa, have developed an online database decoding hundreds of distinct elephant signals and gestures. The postures and movements underscore the sophistication of elephant communication, they say. Poole and Granli have also deciphered the meaning of acoustic communication in elephants, interpreting the different rumbling, roaring, screaming, trumpeting, and other idiosyncratic sounds that elephants make in concert with postures such as the positioning and flapping of their ears.
Poole has studied elephants in Africa for more than 37 years, but only began developing the online gestures database in the past decade. Some of her research and conservation work has been funded by the National Geographic Society.
“I noticed that when I would take out guests visiting Amboseli [National Park in Kenya] and was narrating the elephants’ behavior, I got to the point where 90 percent of the time, I could predict what the elephant was about to do,” Poole said in an interview. “If they stood a certain way, they were afraid and were about to retreat, or [in another way] they were angry and were about to move toward and threaten another.”
Over the course of thousands of hours of observations, Poole came to understand and essentially translate what elephants were communicating to one another. She was also the first to discover musth in African elephants, a state of heightened sexual and aggressive activity in males, during which they display characteristic behaviors such as the gestures classified in the database as ear-wave, trunk-bounce-drag, head-toss, chin-in, and the distinctive musth-walk, a sort of elephant strut.
As Poole was working in the bush, her husband, who has a communications background, immediately saw the value of raising public awareness of the sophisticated behavior of these charismatic animals and was eager to share what they were learning. “Petter said, ‘Let’s get this out there and make it available for people,’” Poole explained.
Poole and Granli began the process of characterizing the gestures and displays they were seeing in their fieldwork. They created nine overarching categories for their gestures database: attentive, aggressive, ambivalent, defensive, social integration, mother-offspring, sexual, play, and death (since elephants have marked behavior around dead companions).
“Elephants can be drama queens and really expressive, or they can be incredibly subtle and understated. It depends on what’s going on and the dynamics of the group,” Poole said.
Some of the more dramatic behavior is seen in the sexual category in a display the researchers labeled mating-pandemonium.
“The females rushes forward from having mated and just starts this incredible display where she’s ear-flapping, rumbling, roaring, and making a hell of a racket, and it draws in everybody else—the whole family participates,” Poole said. “Then she’ll go over and sniff his penis and semen. She even picks [semen] up off the ground with her trunk and splashes herself with it, roaring and rumbling. This is the drama queen stuff, though in this case, it serves to attract other, more distant males.”
And then there are the subtler gestures, such as the attentive category’s freezing posture, which elephants use when they detect a possible threat. Elephant rumbles contain very low frequencies, some of which people cannot hear. Elephants can detect the more powerful of these sounds from several miles away, and these same vibrations travel seismically through the ground even farther. Picking up on these signals may cause elephants to freeze as a group and hold completely still, Poole explained.
“Someone might freeze at the back of the group first,” Poole said, “and immediately then everyone else picks up the sounds we can’t hear and the vibrations we don’t feel.” Elephants have been observed responding to sounds like other elephants, vehicles, and stampeding zebras from over a mile away, as well as distant thunder and earthquakes. Reacting appropriately to these sounds is important for their survival.
Sense of Humor
Poole recalls how elephants at play used to charge her car, appearing to trip and fall while tusking the ground (tusk-ground gesture) in front of her vehicle. “I used to think that they really did trip—no longer!” Poole said. “I have seen it enough times to know that pretending to fall over in front of the car is all part of the fun. It is one of the behaviors that led me to say that elephants have a sense of self and a sense of humor. They know that they are funny.”
Following are examples from the nine overarching categories that Joyce Poole and Petter Granli have categorized to decode elephant gestures.
A young elephant in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique threatens Poole’s vehicle, from which she is observing him. He spreads his ears in an exaggerated way to intimidate her. Typically in such an aggressive stance, an elephant will hold its head well above its shoulders and, with tusks lifted, direct its gaze at its adversary. As seen in the standing-tall display, another aggressive gesture described in the database, an elephant may increase its height by standing on a log or an anthill to assume greater stature, a tactic used by males when they’re sizing each other up.
The relationship between a mother elephant and her offspring is a protective, reassuring, and comforting one. Mothers and other family members caress the young in many different ways, by wrapping a trunk over the calf’s back leg, as seen in the photo above from Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Mothers also wrap their trunks around the calf’s belly, over its shoulder, and under its neck, often touching its mouth. A gentle rumbling sound often accompanies the caress gesture.
Elephants have an incredible sense of smell. The way an elephant holds the tip of its trunk can tell an observer where its attention is directed. When the trunk is lifted up in an s-shape, called the periscope-sniff, the elephant is detecting scents carried on the wind. Such a movement is used if additional information is wanted, such as if the elephant is meeting strangers or perceives danger. Another common type of sniff is the sniff-toward, in which the trunk is held relatively straight and pointed in the direction of interest.
Elephants advance toward Poole’s vehicle en masse in a coordinated group defensive maneuver. Elephants’ first line of defense is to bunch together in response to a perceived threat while they decide what action to take. In the photo above, an elderly matriarch named Provocadora—of the Mabenzi elephant group in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park—had instigated the group-advance. She then handed off the “dirty work” to the other females, Poole said. Tuskless, another female elephant led the assault with the support of 35 other elephants behind her.
When a male is in musth (the term for heightened sexual state), such as the one at right in the photo, and is ready to mate, he will approach the estrous female (at left) and begin pushing or driving her with his forehead prior to mounting her. This female is standing her ground to indicate she is ready to mate. She actively pushes back against the male, locking her legs. Mounting occurs once the male places his forelegs on the female’s back.
Elephants are empathetic and will console, feed, assist, or attempt to rouse an injured or fallen elephant. They also have an understanding of death and appear to pay homage to the dead of their own kind. Elephants may use their tusks and trunk to try and feed a dead elephant, or attempt to lift or even carry sick, dying, or dead elephants.
An elephant may touch its face for reassurance, one of several gestures elephant biologist Joyce Poole has observed during her decades in the field.
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
If an elephant feels uneasy, or is ambivalent about what to do next, he or she may engage in touch-face, a self-directed touching of the face, mouth, ear, trunk, tusk, or temporal gland, apparently to reassure and self-soothe.
Social Integration (Let’s-Go-Stance)
When a member of a family wants to go in a specific direction, she will adopt a particular type of posture that Poole and Granli have termed the let’s-go-stance. The female elephant initiating the movement will stand on the periphery of the group and lift or swing her foot (foot-swinging gesture) in the direction she wants to travel. She’ll purposefully face the desired direction, as her rumble call tells the other elephants, “I want to go this way. Let’s go together,” which she’ll repeat every minute or so. Her persistent calling attracts the attention of others who may slowly move to join her.
All video material was filmed in the Maasai Mara Reserve where National Geographic’s Northern European Fund is supporting the ElephantVoices project, “Elephant Partners: Conservation through Citizen Science and Web Technology.”
Learn more about this project by listening to Joyce Poole’s lecture at National Geographic Live in 2012.