elephant communication

  • Acoustic communication


    Acoustic (that is, sound) signals are omni directional (i.e. they travel in all directions) and can be broadcast to a large audience of intended and unintended listeners, including those in view and those hidden from view. Being short-lived and deliberate, acoustic signals are useful for giving information about an immediate situation, rather than about a constant state. Through reflection, refraction and absorption, acoustic signals are degraded by the environment in ways that are often very much greater for high frequency sounds than for very low frequency sounds. Elephants are specialists in the production of low frequency sound and in the use of long-distance communication. Check out some good examples on acoustic communication by elephants in article "What Elephant Calls Mean: A User's Guide" published by National Geographic in 2014, based on the work of ElephantVoices.

    The range of sounds elephants produce

    Erin vocalizes after mating with Ed. (©ElephantVoices)African elephants produce a broad range of sounds from very low frequency Rumbles to higher frequency Snorts, Barks, Roars, Cries and other idiosyncratic sounds. The most frequently used type of call is the very low frequency Rumble. You can search for, listen to and read about numerous calls and other sounds made by elephants on The Elephant Ethogram: A

  • Chemical communication


    The use of chemical or olfactory cues is central to communication between elephants. Elephants often raise their trunks up to sniff scents carried in the air, or use the tips of their trunks to explore the ground (especially urine spots, urine trails and fecal matter) as well as to sniff the genitals, temporal glands, or mouths of other elephants. Chemical communication provides an energetically efficient and long-lasting signal.

    Musth temporal gland secretion Mr. Nick. (©ElephantVoices) Sources of odours used in chemical communication between elephants include urine, faeces, saliva and secretions from the temporal gland, a large multi-lobed sac with an orifice mid-way between the ear and eye.

    Elephants may also use secretions from the tarsal or Meibomian glands and interdigital glands in communication, and they are frequently observed with secretions from the ears which are also likely to convey information.

    Sense of smell

    Elephants have a keen sense of smell and just as we use our sight an elephant makes use of her sense of smell constantly. When we want to learn more about what an elephant is thinking or where her attention is directed, we look not at her gaze (as we would with a person), but at the tip of her trunk. The tip of

  • ElephantVoices eNewsletter August 2017 - Say Hello in Elephant!

    Dear Friend of ElephantVoices,

    For the first time you can Speak Elephant with your friends. You can share your message in a pretty cool way:-).

    Together with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, we’re launching Say Hello in Elephant to raise awareness and to showcase elephant communication. Our goal is to reach far and wide - during World Elephant Day, 12th August, and beyond.

    In the press release about this campaign ElephantVoices’ Joyce Poole states: "Elephants are awe-inspiring and every moment in their company brings joy. Unlocking their rich emotive communication and gaining deeper insight into their world is fascinating. Yet, elephants and their habitats are under assault, and we urgently need to change hearts and minds.”

    Say Hello in Elephant provides a little window into the complex communication of elephants. If you want to learn more, check out our elephant calls database. We are currently working on a major expansion of all our elephant behavior databases, and look forward to show you more during the coming year.

    More than ever we need your help to inspire people to do their utmost to stop the ivory trade and to ensure a future with space for elephants. Please consider supporting the work of

  • ElephantVoices research

    Listening to the voices of elephants over decades has taught us that communication is the glue that binds the social network of an intelligent species, and its study offers a window into the hearts and minds of elephants. Our collection of observations, recordings and images come from Africa and Asia and form the basis of extensive databases, being used and visited by a world-wide audience.

    National Geographic illustrationA decades-long study of elephant social behaviour, communication and cognition in Amboseli, Kenya, have been dedicated to the understanding and protection of these remarkable creatures. Our work in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, and Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, is adding to this body of knowledge and will in due time also be reflected in our online behavioral databases.

    By studying what elephants are capable of understanding and what they communicate to one another, we have a better chance of finding solutions to the many problems that elephants face. In this endeavour we collaborate with biologists all over the world with our online collections forming a unique resource for other scientists and the public.

    By clicking on the illustration to the right you will be able to check out an article on National Geographic, giving some insight

  • How elephants communicate

    Like all highly social mammals elephants have a well-developed system of communication that makes use of all of their senses - hearing, smell, vision and touch - including an exceptional ability to detect vibrations.

    Acoustic communication takes a look at sound production and hearing in elephants; chemical communication explains how elephants use various secretions and their acute sense of smell to communicate; visual communication looks at how elephants make use of postures and displays and their sense of sight in communication; tactile communication describes how elephants make use of their sense of touch to communicate.

    At one end of the spectrum elephants communicate by rubbing their bodies against one another, at the other end they may respond by moving toward the sounds of other elephants calling, perhaps 10 kilometers away. They convey information about their physiological (e.g. sexual/hormonal, body condition, identity) and emotional state (e.g. whether they are fearful, playful, joyful, angry, excited) as well as communicating specific "statements" about their intentions or desires. In this section we look at how elephants use the different pathways of communication and the actual mechanics of communicating.

    You will in the fully searchable database The Elephant Ethogram: A Library of African Elephant Behavior find close to

  • Introduction

    The Elephant Ethogram is a uniquely detailed catalogue, or library, of the behavior and communication of African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana). It is based on decades of ElephantVoices behavioral studies, photographs, and audio and video recordings, the referenced research of other elephant biologists, as well as professional and amateur footage made available to ElephantVoices. You can read more about how elephants communicate within this section of elephantvoices.org.

    Joyce and Petter documenting elephant behavior in Amboseli, Kenya. (©ElephantVoices)The Elephant Ethogram consists of written and referenced descriptions, video examples, photographic illustrations and, where relevant, audio recordings, of 322 Behaviors, 103 Behavioral Constellations and 23 Behavioral Contexts. There are close to 3,000 media files in the fully searchable Elephant Ethogram including 2,408 video clips (18 August 2021).

    The concept and structural design of The Elephant Ethogram was developed by Joyce Poole and Petter Granli of ElephantVoices. Programming and database maintenance is handled by Derrick Joel, Nairobi, Kenya in collaboration with Petter. The Elephant Ethogram is coded in open source software PhP and MySQL in Joomla! CMS, and is hosted on Cisco servers as a section of elephantvoices.org. Video and audio is hosted on Vimeo and SoundCloud, respectively.

    What is an Ethogram?

    An ethogram is a comprehensive list, inventory, catalogue or description of the behaviors or actions exhibited by a

  • Launch of The Elephant Ethogram

    Screenshot from The Elephant Ethogram

    ElephantVoices logo

    Dear ElephantVoices friend,

    The Elephant Ethogram: A Library of African Elephant Behavior is live! We are very excited with the results of this massive, multi-year effort and hope to entice you with our science-telling. There are close to 2,400 educational video clips currently uploaded, each associated with detailed descriptions and stories. In addition, you will find more than 600 field recordings, spectrograms and imagesThe Elephant Ethogram is a culmination of Joyce's life’s work and it feels very satisfying to be able to share it with the world through the organization we founded together almost 20 years ago.

    We officially launched The Elephant Ethogram on 25th May. Read National Geographic's interview with Joyce linked here. Forbes covered the launch with this article - and more media coverage will follow during the days to come. Going forward our ambition is to ensure The Elephant Ethogram will be an important resource used long-term in the best interests of both wild and captive elephants.

    The Introduction page will give you some basic information about The Elephant Ethogram. The User Guide will help you find your way, with the Search Portal being the place for all kinds of searches. The Science section is for those especially interested

  • Seismic communication


    Seismic energy transmits most efficiently between 10-40 Hz - in the same range as the fundamental frequency and 2nd harmonic of an elephant rumble. It turns out that when an elephant rumbles a replica of the airborne sound is also transmitted through the ground. Elephant sounds have been measured as traveling at about 309 meters per second through air and at about 248-264 meters per second through the ground.

    Experiments carried out by Caitlin O'Connell and colleagues have shown that elephants are able to pick up these seismic signals, to orient in the direction that the vibrations come from and even to respond to them appropriately.

    Elephants may be able to detect these seismic vibrations, or rayleigh waves, through two possible means: bone conduction and the use of massive ossicles of their middle ears or, possibly, by mechano-receptors in the toes, feet or trunk that are sensitive to vibrations.

    The tip of an elephant's trunk has layers of cells called Pacinian corpuscles that are extremely sensitive to vibrations and are thought to be able to detect movement as subtle as Brownian motion. Pacinian corpuscles have also been found in the elephant foot - concentrated in the front and back (toes and heel

  • The Elephant Ethogram

    ElephantVoices is working on a major initiative to document the repertoire of African savannah elephant behavior (Loxodonta africana). The Elephant Ethogram represents a unique and comprehensive source of information about elephant behaviour and communication, based on ElephantVoices' decades of behavioural study, our multimedia photographic and acoustic collections, as well as footage collected during the filming of documentaries from the Maasai Mara, Kenya, and Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. The Elephant Ethogram describes and preserves the gestural and acoustic "language" and behaviour of a species whose way of life, and very existence, is threatened by human greed and expansion.

    The first version of The Elephant Ethogram was made available on ElephantVoices.org in April 2021. 

    Purpose & Objectives

    The Elephant Ethogram documents in a unique, user-friendly and fully searchable database, the complex and diverse communication and behavior of African elephants for scientists and others to study, compare and share. As a repository of exemplars of elephant behaviour, The Elephant Ethogram aims to:

    • preserve the gestural and acoustic repertoire, or "language," of African savannah elephants;
    • be a valuable resource and reference for scientific study;
    • be a repository of rare elephant behaviors and those evolving through social learning in response to rapidly increasing anthropogenic threats;
    • inspire increased interest in elephant behavior,