Over many years of studying animals ethologists learn to read the faces and postures of their subjects through a combination of experience and intuition. We unconsciously use this information whenever we're with elephants without really thinking about the process. We know, for example, whether an elephant is frightened, annoyed, excited, or joyful, but attempting to quantify this "sixth sense" into a presentation for others has been an elucidating and sometimes surprising process!
The visual and tactile signals, displays, postures, expressions and gestures described and illustrated in this database have been compiled over a period of many months, well, even years. A number of people have contributed to this process most notably Phil Kahl and Billie Armstrong, who are in the process of compiling a comprehensive ethogram for African elephants. During 2002 and 2003 we worked by e-mail with Phil and Billie to find common signal-name terminology and behaviorally correct descriptions. Working with them was a very rewarding exercise partly because we enjoy piecing together this kind of a puzzle, but also because we have, once more, been astonished by how complex elephant communication is. In 2003 the first version of ElephantVoices Visual and Tactile Signals Database was launched. (Later renamed ElephantVoices Gestures Database).
In 2004 we decided to write up this work as a Chapter in the Amboseli book, The Amboseli Elephants: A long term perspective of a long-lived mammal. During this phase our Amboseli colleagues, Cynthia Moss, Phyllis Lee, and Harvey Croze, contributed their thoughts and perspectives to our original product which has led to a revision of the database in order to synchronize the online and printed versions. The changes primarily affect the terminology of some of the General and Narrower Contexts and the placement of signals or gestures within them, rather than to signal-names or their descriptions.
One driving force for us to develop this collection and database has been a need to make it easier to discuss and categorize elephant behavior with others. Through a common terminology and under-standing of these signals we can collectively better comprehend and anticipate elephant behavior and gain a window into their state of mind - and, thus, find better ways to manage and protect them.
The work presented is not a finished product, and may never be, as each day of observing elephant behavior increases our knowledge. As we continue to learn through observation and from others we will reevaluate and update the database. We will also update and improve the collection of still photos, with the ultimate goal of having an image for all listed signals. At a later stage we may even add video.
Signals, displays, postures, gestures and expressions
It has not been easy to put each gesture into a clear and separate "bin" because elephants are complex animals with multifaceted emotions and relationships. For example, Tail-Raising in conjunction with one constellation of signals can be a clear indication that an elephant is alarmed or frightened, while Tail-Raising in combination with another assemblage of signals can indicate that an elephant is highly socially excited. We have, therefore, tried to ensure that those signals seen in different circumstances are listed under each specific context together with a behaviorally appropriate photograph.
It may be helpful to give some definitions so that readers have a common standpoint from which to view these visual and tactile "signals":
Common language requires that a signal be responded to. So if there is reasonably clear evidence that other elephants pay attention to, respond to, or change their behavior according to, a change in posture, movement, or physical contact by another elephant, then it is a signal.
The visual and tactile signals presented include body postures and movements, gestures, facial expressions and visual secretions. Signals may include idiosyncratic (only one or several individuals have been seen to use it), novel gestures (when an idiosyncratic signal suddenly starts to be used in a group where it has not been used before) and ritualized displays. Ritualized or stereotyped signals are known as displays and are usually genetically determined and species-specific and typically show off some weapon or other physical characteristic.
You may find some entries that do not (at this stage of our knowledge) strictly fit the definition of a signal. Examples of this might be "Eye-Blinking" and "J-Sniffing", since it is not clear whether other elephants respond to these expressions. We have included them because we find some of these "telltale" postures essential to understanding where the attention of our subject lies. Hopefully those of you who are studying elephants will find them useful, too.
How to use ElephantVoices Gestures Database
The database is fully searchable. You can search on any word applicable to elephants or any you find in a signal description, and if it occurs in the database the relevant signals will be listed. Each signal with one or more thumbnail photograph has a higher resolution version incorporated in the database. You can access it by pushing the thumbnail.