How Do Elephants Communicate With Each Other?

Written by Cammi Morgan
Published: November 22, 2023
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Brilliant and communicative animals, wild elephants live intricate, interwoven, and complex social lives. They communicate intentions, emotions, greetings, warnings, and concerns with each other through a range of expressions, including tactile, acoustic, chemical, visual, and even seismic communication.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how elephants communicate with each other and what some of their signals mean. Read on to learn more.

How Do Elephants Communicate? Tactile Signals

Elephants (Elephantidae) are highly tactile animals. Touch-based communication is a cornerstone of how elephants express themselves and form cohesive social bonds. African elephants (loxodonta spp.) and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) use their whole body in tactile communication.

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Trunks

Elephants explore their surroundings with their flexible, sensitive trunk, which is one of the primary ways they express tactile communication. For African elephants, their trunk contains about 40,000 muscles! During friendly greetings courtship, elephants often press their trunks together and intertwine them. They use their trunks to gently dab at each other’s face and body as a sign of affection and reassurance. Juveniles will often place their trunks in their mother’s or older females’ mouths as a placating gesture or to ask for food. Calves will use their trunks to slap each other in playfulness. Mothers will direct their calves with trunks or hit them against their young to express irritation.

Elephants touching each other gently (greeting)

Young elephants use their trunks in friendly greetings and play.

©Johan Swanepoel/iStock via Getty Images

Acoustic Signals

Elephants can display a wide range of acoustic communication. They can produce calls with their mouth open or closed. These calls include long-distance, low-frequency rumbles through the mouth or trunk, mighty roars, snorts, barks, grunts, trumpets, and squeals. Some low-frequency sounds are produced below the level that humans can hear unassisted. These calls communicate intentions, desires, concerns, warnings, and emotions. The pitch, sound length, and volume all contribute to the meaning of the communication. Other elephants can hear some of these thundering calls about 6 miles away.

For example, elephant biologists have deciphered how elephants incorporate acoustic communication into a desire to move together. If an elephant wants to move together in a new direction, she will point her body in the desired direction, often lift a front foot, flap her ears, and make a repeated low rumble every minute. When they flap their ears, elephants also produce sounds to communicate with each other. These sounds can communicate an intent to move, to call elephants over or request they follow, or to signal aggression or seriousness.

Elephant trumpeting as he leaves the Chobe River in Botswana Africa

Elephants can communicate through various acoustic sounds, including trumpeting and low-frequency rumbles.

©Dennis W Donohue/Shutterstock.com

How Elephants Communicate: Visual Signals

Elephants can express themselves visually with their whole body with specific signals using ears, eyes, trunk, head position, tail, and feet.

Ear flapping, for example, can have several meanings in different contexts. Rapid ear flapping with gentle trunk dabs can indicate excitement and social bonding between elephants. However, a defensive or angry elephant may flap its ears while kicking up dusk and tossing its trunk. A threatened elephant will attempt to appear larger by holding their head eye and spreading their ears to their maximum width.

Chasing Elephant in the Masai Mara

Head and trunk position, ear flapping, and body posture are all ways elephants can visually communicate.

©Guenter Guni/iStock via Getty Images

How Elephants Communicate With Each Other: Chemical Signals

Elephants use a range of chemical signals to communicate with each other. Odorous chemicals in urine, feces, saliva, and secretions from the temporal, tarsal, and interdigital glands convey important physiological information to each other. These chemical trails are long-lasting and can provide signals from elephants no longer in the area. When elephants flap their ears during greetings, they can push pheromones toward the other.

Seismic Communication

Incredibly, elephants can pick up underground signals over vast distances with their sensitive feet. When an elephant emits a low-frequency call, that sound can travel dozens of miles underground. Elephants too far away to hear this call with their ears can pick up the signal seismically through their feet. Mating calls, alarm signals, and navigation instructions are all communication that can be sent via these incredible underground messages. Often, when an elephant pauses, lifts its foot and points its toe at the ground, this indicates new-incoming seismic information and triangulation of the signal. Elephants can also discern the distance of the signal.

In a series of studies, researchers played an elephant-generated alarm call over a loudspeaker, which caused the elephant herd to flee immediately. Then, they played the same alarm call a long distance underground. The elephant herd responded to this seismic signal received through their feet by closing ranks and becoming alert but not immediately fleeing- indicating they could discern that the alarm signal did not indicate danger in their immediate vicinity.

wild aggressive asian elephant or Elephas maximus indicus roadblock walking head on in summer season and natural green scenic background safari at bandhavgarh national park forest madhya pradesh india

Incredibly, elephants can use their sensitive feet to pick up seismic signals from dozens of miles away.

©Sourabh Bharti/iStock via Getty Images

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Aelice/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Cammi Morgan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on mycology, marine animals, forest and river ecology, and dogs. Cammi has been volunteering in animal rescue for over 10 years, and has been studying mycology and field-researching mushrooms for the past 3 years. A resident of Southeast Appalachia, Cammi loves her off-grid life where she shares 20 acres with her landmates, foster dogs, and all the plants, fungi, and critters of the forest.

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