Elephant’s Complex Communication System

Hannah Phillips

Public fascination persists for elephants, an iconic animal of the wild that takes the gold for largest land mammal on Earth. Elephants are mesmerizing in size and have played an interactive role in society for centuries. Often overshadowed because of their work in entertainment and forestry, these magnificent creatures are one of the world’s most emotionally intelligent, highly sociable creatures. Notably, their communication system is complex and well-developed. Studies on elephants communicating with each other, even from long-distances, entice people to further explore their interactions.

Types of Communication

Like humans, elephant communication is covered in two broad categories: verbal and nonverbal. Further, elephants actively engage many of their senses to communicate with each other. Vision, touch, hearing, and smell are all used to exchange information and convey emotions among herds.

Visual

The ways in which elephants gesture assists in communicating their messages to each other. Elephants use their entire body and its individual parts to portray emotions and correspond. For example, females will form a defensive circle around their calves when they sense a threat, with their ears spread and heads high up and attentive. On a more playful note, elephants have also been known to  entertain themselves  by sitting on the ground and flopping their trunk on their head by throwing their head back. These are examples of clear nonverbal communication. 

While some physical presentations are closely connected to particular meanings, others are believed to contain a multitude of interpretations depending on the situation. Namely, eye-widening falls into this ambiguous category. The whites of the elephant’s eyes have been noted to become visible when they are excited, alarmed, frightened or involved with social interactions. 

Smell

Elephants are constantly engaging their olfactory system, which allows them to smell. Believe it or not, all smells and aromas are odor sources that are important means of communication for these magnificent creatures. Through the use of their trunk, elephants sniff everything from food, urine, and chemical secretion to other elephants in order to sense their environment and those that are or have been in it. They are considered to have the most effective sense of smell in the animal kingdom. While dogs have around 800 genes committed to scent and humans have 400, elephants have around 2,000.

The elephant’s temporal glands, which open on the head between the ears and eyes, also emit secretions. The secretion of this gland can give off a scent that informs others of when a male elephant is in musth (a dramatic change in behavior in male elephants), as well as when female elephants are receptive to mating. 

Keen in their olfaction, elephants can recognize the scent of urine and feces from those that are or were in their herd. This can be used to stay in touch with other herds or find those that have wandered.

Sound

Vocalization from elephants travel in all directions, very commonly heard from several miles away. Elephants have an extensive supply of calls that are associated with a particular message. Trumpeting calls, snorts, cries, and low-frequency rumbles encompass a large foundation of their vocalized communication.

High-frequency trumpeting calls ring loudly throughout their surroundings, indicating high levels of stimulation, such as surprise, fear, aggression, or socialization. Purring is typically present throughout their eating. On the other hand, sudden silence acts as a warning that danger could possibly be near.

A heavy majority of vocal calls consists of rumbles, made at lower frequencies. Traveling further than higher frequencies, low frequency rumbles allow elephants to communicate over longer distances, making it easier to stay in contact with each other. Some of their vocalization is so low that it is below human hearing, putting it in the infrasonic range. These intelligent mammals have also been discovered to learn and imitate the sound of their surroundings, as well as from other elephants like croaking, humming, and squelching.

Touch

Most fascinating of all is the key role that touch plays in the everyday interactions of elephants. Not only are they highly intelligent animals, but they are also highly tactile. While the entire body of an elephant is utilized to communicate through touch, their trunk is a principle player. 

Elephants gently use their trunks to wrap around each other in greeting. Social-rubbing also takes place where elephants will rub the sides of their bodies and ears against each other. It is not uncommon to see elephants place their trunks in the mouth of another as a form of greeting. In a moment of reassurance and comfort, often but not limited to mothers and their offspring, the trunk will be used to caress. These emotionally-intelligent animals are known to mourn the loss of herd members. When they come in contact with a fallen carcass they investigate the body, stroking the body and touch the bones with their trunks and feet. In a more playful context, elephants will throw their trunk on top of each other’s head and push each other to see who is stronger.

Tactile communication is not limited to physical touch between elephants. The soles of their feet have been observed to be sensitive, to the point of being able to feel seismic waves, which give off vibrations through the ground. The gentle giants use these vibrations, inaudible to humans, as a form of communication. Whenever an elephant rumbles, as discussed earlier, these sounds travel through the air as well as through the ground. They are not only able to understand these messages and respond appropriately, but they can also detect the initial direction and location of the message.

Sources: Animals Asia Foundation, Discover Wildlife, Elephants Forever, Elephant Voices, Elephant World, Phang Nga Elephant Park, Save the Elephants, Treehugger