For years naturalists have written about the behavior of elephants without realizing they were contributing to the beginnings of a foundation of knowledge about their visual communication. Many of these descriptions are part of popular language. For instance, people talk about an angry elephant "charging", "flapping its ears", "kicking up dust" or "tossing its trunk." In the course of their research early elephant ethologists, too, wrote about specific displays using words such as "the musth walk", "standing tall" or "trunk curling," to name but a few.
So how do elephants send visual signals? The answer in its simplest form is that they use their heads, eyes, mouth, ears, tusks, trunk, tail, feet and even their whole body to signal messages to one another and to other species. For example, a threatening or dominant elephant signals her status by trying to appear larger, carrying her head high above her shoulders, spreading her ears, climbing up a termite mound, while a subordinate elephant carries his head low and his ears back. An elephant who is fearful raises her tail and lifts her chin. A socially aroused elephant raises tail and her head, and lifts and rapidly flaps her ears.