tactile signals

  • Tactile communication


    Context of Interactions

    Elephants are extremely tactile animals. They purposefully touch one another using their trunk, ears, tusks, feet, tail, and even their entire body. Tactile interactions between elephants occur during a broad range of contexts including aggressive, defensive, affiliative, sexual, playful, care-taking and exploratory behavior.

    Depending upon how their tusks are employed, elephants may use them to poke another aggressively, to gently lift a baby from a mud wallow, or to express solidarity during a greeting ceremony.

    Elephants often use their ears to rub against another affectionately or in play, or their tails to swat another with force or to gently check for the presence of a calf.

    An elephant's trunk may be used to caress, reassure or assist a calf, to explore the genitals, mouth or temporal glands of a family member, to touch or explore the body of a dead elephant, to touch or push another in play. In more aggressive or defensive contexts an elephant may use its trunk to slap or to block, or to reach out to another for reassurance when facing a predator. In sexual contexts elephants use their trunks to explore, to test or to control the movements of another.

    Elephants use

  • Visual communication


    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 displays. Many of these 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 elephant ethologists, too, have written about specific displays using words such as "the musth walk", "standing-tall", "distant frontal attitude" or "trunk curling," to name but a few. Yet, no one had tried to systematically describe the displays, signals and gestures of elephants.

    In 1991 Phil Kahl and Billie Armstrong set off to Zimbabwe to film elephants and document their behavior. For years afterwards they went through hundreds of hours of video recordings and thousands of still photographs with the goal to produce a detailed ethogram of the African elephant. Unfortunately Phil Kahl passed away in late 2012, before this tremendous task was completed.

    In 2002 we also began to compile everything we knew about elephant displays and gestures from the cumulative work of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project. To this knowledge we added displays mentioned in the published work of other