Long (~4-6.5 second duration), typically powerful, throaty, Open-Mouthed, highly modulated rumbles that are associated with Head-Lifting, Listening, and rhythmic Ear-Flapping. With measured sound pressure levels. of up to 115 dB, elephants use these calls to keep in audible contact with one another over distances of 1-2 km. We refer to these vocalizations as Contact-Rumbles or Contact-Calls.

A Contact-Call sequence may include several rumbles: A caller's initial rumble is associated with rhythmic Ear-Flapping and is followed by Listening behavior: the caller's head is held in an attentive lifted position, Head-Raising, with ears cocked, Ears-Stiff, as if waiting for a response, and as if querying, "I am here, where are you?" An answering elephant typically responds with an abrupt lifting of the head and ears as if Listening and a sudden, explosive rumble seemingly stating, "I am over here.” This sudden calling is often unexpected to the human observer because the initial caller is often distant and her rumble, therefore, inaudible to human listeners.

The initial caller, upon hearing an answer, may respond with another call, often associated with a more relaxed posture, as if sending confirmation that an answer has been received. Nearby family members may also add their voice(s) to the second or third phase of the sequence, and calling back and forth may continue, intermittently, over hours until the individuals meet again.

Separated by long distances, elephants will Contact-Call with highly modulated rumbles at high sound pressure levels, but, as might be expected, elephants also call back and forth to one another over shorter distances with less modulated rumbles at lower sound pressure levels.

Adult females, juveniles and calves all make use of Contact-Calls. As far as we are aware adult males do not use the powerful long-distance version, but we would not be surprised to learn that adult males in tightly bonded groups do. Most Contact-Rumbles last between 4 and 6.5 seconds and are modulated in frequency contour, typically rising sharply at the start and falling more gradually. There exists a wide range of variation in the contours of Contact-Calls, however, that may be related to whether the individual is the initial caller or the one answering.

In 2002 McComb showed that the Contact-Calls of individuals are structurally distinct and audibly identifiable to other elephants. In other words, Contact-Calls contain an acoustic signature. It is possible that considerable additional information is contained in the different variations of the calls, perhaps related excitement level of the callers, their inter-individual distance, the sequential arrangement (i.e. call, answer, confirmation), or to logistical, or locational information or who, in particular, an elephant is directing its calling to. Future research may answer some of these questions.

References: Poole et al 1988, McComb et al. 2003; Poole 2011. (Full reference list)

This behavior occurs in the following context(s): Movement, Space & Leadership


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (1)

A young mother is walking alone with her day old infant. She stops as if resting and then we see her raise and turn her head and spread and stiffen her ears, Listening. Immediately after Listening she Ear-Flaps and gives a Contact-Rumble likely answering a call we didn't hear.

Then she Listens again. We hear a very faint distant rumble in response to her. She pauses Listening and then gives a second softer rumble. She is separated from her family and her infant is vulnerable to predators without them. We believe she is looking for her family. (Maasai Mara, Kenya)


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (2)

In this very short clip with little context, the first call by the mother is cut off. The quality of calls by both mother and calf sound like Contact-Answers to a call (or calls) that was/were not captured. The calf pauses briefly to Listen. (Maasai Mara, Kenya)


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (3)

Little-E's family is on the move and not all family members are in view. Our notes say that the movement is a result of some Cadenced-Calling. We hear a soft distant call followed immediately by a powerful Contact-Answer by a female out of view in front. (Maasai Mara, Kenya)


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (4)

Amparo is at the end of estrus and has recently Mated with a medium sized male (on her left). She is separated from her calf and the rest of her family and appears to be calling to them. There is no evidence of any call or answer from them on the spectrogram. Later I comment that they are about 80 meters away. (Amboseli, Kenya)


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (5)

Nayanka steps forward with Periscope-Trunk. Her daughter Nastya has just been Mounted and the family was Rumbling. I believe this is why her mother has Temporin F-4. I say that Nastya is being Chased again and then Nayanka Head-Raises and gives a Contact-Rumble. There are two calls before her call and one after. I imagine that at least one of these is Nastya. Notice that Nayanka does not use an Open-Mouth when she calls. (Amboseli, Kenya)


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (6)

Nine year old Nastya is in Estrus and has been separated from the rest of her family for over an hour. As she arrives at the KH4 waterhole we thought that she would Drink, but instead she was totally absorbed in Tracking - sniffing and following tracks on the ground. Soon after she gives a Contact-Rumble, and then she begins to walk away with all the males following her. In the next couple of clips after this one she finds her family, so we think it is likely that she was sniffing her family's footprints. (Amboseli, Kenya)


Context: Movement Space & Leadership (7)

Nine year old Nastya is in Estrus and has been separated from the rest of her family for over an hour. In the previous clip of her she found her family's tracks at KH4 waterhole sniffed and Tracked them for several minutes. Then she called to them and then began to walk toward them with all the males following her. In this clip she walks toward and reaches her family. She call to them twice. The first time we can hear them answer. (Amboseli, Kenya)