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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Aelice/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.