Elephant Calls Database Contexts

People often express surprise to learn that elephants communicate with one another. Of course they can! How else can animals with strong individual personalities, living in a complex society, achieve anything? The purpose of this database, and the work that we have carried out over decades, is to share with you the voices of elephants, and through them the complexities of their daily life.

Little-Greeting - female greets Grace. (©ElephantVoices) One of the fundamental behavioural characteristics of elephants is their demonstrative nature. Expressions of what appear to be joy, anger, silliness, and outright indignation are all commonly seen. Elephants seem to revel in making a "big deal" about everything - they are the quinessential Drama Queens. For example, if one member of a family expresses umbrage, family and friends rush to her side to comment and concur and to provide emotional support and physical backup, if necessary.

Elephants communicate using calls associated with specific contexts

Elephants vocalize in a wide range of situations. They call to advertise physiological or hormonal state, to warn others and to threaten, to demonstrate strong emotions, to announce needs or desires, to propose, negotiate or discuss a plan of action, to coordinate group movement, to secure group defence, to care for calves, to solicit care or support, to reinforce bonds between family and friends, to reconcile differences, and to assert dominance. Elephants communicate with one another using a variety of call types and, within those, call sub-types or what we call "context-types."

This particular database describes the calls that elephants use in specific contexts (i.e. when mating, begging, protesting, playing etc) in other words, elephant call "context-types." Before you explore this database, you may want to familiarize yourself with the over-arching elephant call types here. You may also enjoy reading an article published on National Geographic online in April 2014 - "What Elephant Calls Mean: A Users Guide" - the result of a collaboration between ElephantVoices and National Geographic and information from this database.

Databases represent a large collection of elephant calls

This database together with the call type database represent a sample of our elephant call collection and are the result of many years of fieldwork, analysis and writing. It expands upon a body of work that appears as Poole, J.H. 2011. The behavioral contexts of African elephant acoustic communication. In: The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal. Moss, C.J. & Croze, H.J. (Eds.) University of Chicago Press. The book chapter is more technical and addresses statistical differences between the different call types and proposed context-types. For those of you interested in obtaining more detailed information about these results, or for obtaining access to calls for further analysis, please get in touch. We welcome collaboration.

The sounds on the database are the copyright of ElephantVoices. Low frequency infoIf you wish to use them commercially or otherwise, please contact us.

If you wish to cite this work please use: Poole, J and Granli, P. 2009. Database of African elephant acoustic communication, www.elephantvoices.org. To view the full structure for the database, click here.

General ContextNarrower context
Group Defense

A group advances in a bunched formation towards an external threat. (©ElephantVoices) Calls associated with anti-predator behavior include those used in the context of alerting companions to the presence of a predator, intimidating or "mobbing" a predator, as well as those used while taking defensive action. Family members produce several different call types when they confront predators or when they find themselves in potentially threatening or frightening situations. These include rumblessnortstrumpets, and roars. Much has been written about the complex and highly coordinated defensive and offensive behavior of elephants in the presence of predators, but the variety of calls produced, and the dramatic responses of other elephants to these calls has received little attention.

When exposed to the sound, sight and smell of lions, hyenas, humans, or other potentially dangerous predators or situations, females and calves typically respond by first Freezing, then rapid assembly (rapid walking or running toward one another) and then BunchingOnce elephants have assessed the level of danger presented, they may attack en masse or make a hasty retreat. Their particular response appears to be communicated, in part, via fine-tuned acoustic signaling.

Sexual

Elephant mating. (©ElephantVoices)

Adult male and female elephants live in two essentially different social systems. Elephants roam over large areas and both sexually active musth males and receptive, or estrous, females are confronted with the problem of finding and attracting suitable mates. While the musth periods of males may last weeks or months, females are receptive for only a few days. Males compete for access to receptive females who, in turn, choose the oldest and largest musth males to father their offspring. These older, higher ranking males are in short supply.

Male and female elephants locate potential mates through searching behavior, conspicuous postures (see Sexual in ElephantVoices Gestures database), the secretion of strong odors and loud and characteristic calling.

Mother-Offspring

Young male trumpets during exuberant play. (©ElephantVoices)

Many of the vocalizations made in the context of a family group are those emitted during interactions between calves and their care-takers. Calves vocalize when begging for access to the breast, when denied access to a food source, when thwarted, frightened, or when they are soliciting assistance or support from their mothers or other care-givers.

Calf vocalizations in these contexts include almost all of the call types produced by African elephants: Rumbles, husky-cries, barks, grunts, cries, roars and trumpets.

Mothers and allomothers respond to these calls by coming to the physical aid of the calling calf and by rumbling. Calves rumble, in turn, in response to the care provided.

Conflict

Elephant are less likely to come into conflict over resources in habitats where food, water and minerals are both plentiful and relatively evenly distributed. We have recorded elephants in Amboseli, Tsavo, Maasai Mara, Laikipia and Gorongosa - all areas where basic resources have been fairly accessible to elephants and conflict relatively low. Yet, we have observed elephants in habitats where preferred food species, such as Acacias, are rare, scarce water is pumped by generator into a few pans, and where minerals are only available in a few widely-dispersed salt-licks. In these situations, conflict between elephants can be intense and vocalisations associated with agonistic behaviour more frequent. Furthermore, as human populations increase many elephants must compete for access to resources with humans and livestock as well as other elephants.  

Sparring between two young males escalates into aggression. (©ElephantVoices)Lack of, or diminishing, resources is only one source of conflict. Males threaten one another, and may even fight to the death, over musth status and access to receptive females. Young males hold sparring matches to gain experience and to test one another's strength, and such playful jousting occasionally turns aggressive. Teenage males, who have reached the same size as adult females, begin pushing their weight around, learning that they can pick on females who are older, yet smaller than themselves. This sort of behavior is not tolerated and may elicit an aggressive attack by a matriarch or by a coalition of females.

Then there are personalities to deal with. Some elephants just don't like one another. In a large aggregation, when many different families and clans come together, there are always limits to be tested and scores to be settled. Afterall, elephants live in a large society within a complex web of relationships built upon the juxtaposition of different personalities.

Social integration

Fragment of a family group walks towards the rest of their family, Amboseli. (©ElephantVoices)Like many sexually dimorphic mammals, adult male and female elephants live in very different social worlds. Fluctuating sexual cycles distinguish the dynamic activities, associations and relationships of adult males, while a complex network of bonds between individuals and families characterizes the lives of females and their offspring.

Elephants families are composed of a discrete, predictable composition of individuals, but over the course of hours or days, these groups may temporarily separate and reunite or they may mingle with other individuals and groups to form larger social units.

In addition to exhibiting a high frequency of association over time, members of an elephant family display strong affiliative behavior (see under Bonding in this section), including a pattern of greeting behaviors and bonding ceremonies, and show highly cooperative behavior during group defense (see Group Defense), offspring care (see Mother-Offspring), and decision-making (see Logistical under this section).

Play

In the context of play, calves, juveniles and adults of both sexes produce a variety of trumpets. The majority of these are shrill harmonic sounds; others are distinctly nasal, while still others are pulsated. All trumpeting by elephants is associated Elephants Floppy-Running. (©ElephantVoices)with a high level of excitement whether emitted during exuberant play, stimulating social events, or threatening, frightening or startling situations. Yet, trumpets are different enough that just by hearing one it is possible to make a fairly accurate assessment of the context in which it occurs.

In the context of play it has been our impression that elephants may be imitating the form of trumpet made by nearby playmates, as there is a tendency for nasal-play-trumpets to be temporally associated with other nasal-play-trumpets and pulsated-play-trumpets to be associated with pulsated-play-trumpets. Additional data will be required, however, to determine whether elephants are using vocal imitation in play.