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Elephants Communicate in Sophisticated Sign Language, Researchers Say

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

Elephants may use a variety of subtle movements and gestures to communicate with one another, according to researchers who have studied the big mammals in the wild for decades. To the casual human observer, a curl of the trunk, a step backward, or a fold of the ear may not have meaning. But to an elephant—and scientists like Joyce Poole—these are signals that convey vital information to individual elephants and the overall herd.

Biologist and conservationist Joyce Poole and her husband, Petter Granli, both of whom direct ElephantVoices, a charity they founded to research and advocate for conservation of elephants in various sanctuaries in Africa, have developed an online database decoding hundreds of distinct elephant signals and gestures. The postures and movements underscore the sophistication of elephant communication, they say. Poole and Granli have also deciphered the meaning of acoustic communication in elephants, interpreting the different rumbling, roaring, screaming, trumpeting, and other idiosyncratic sounds that elephants make in concert with postures such as the positioning and flapping of their ears.

Poole has studied elephants in Africa for more than 37 years, but only began developing the online gestures database in the past decade. Some of her research and conservation work has been funded by the National Geographic Society.

“I noticed that when I would take out guests visiting Amboseli [National Park in Kenya] and was narrating the elephants’ behavior, I got to the point where 90 percent of the time, I could predict what the elephant was about to do,” Poole said in an interview. “If they stood a certain way, they were afraid and were about to retreat, or [in another way] they were angry and were about to move toward and threaten another.”

Over the course of thousands of hours of observations, Poole came to understand and essentially translate what elephants were communicating to one another. She was also the first to discover musth in African elephants, a state of heightened sexual and aggressive activity in males, during which they display characteristic behaviors such as the gestures classified in the database as ear-wave, trunk-bounce-drag, head-toss, chin-in, and the distinctive musth-walk, a sort of elephant strut.

As Poole was working in the bush, her husband, who has a communications background, immediately saw the value of raising public awareness of the sophisticated behavior of these charismatic animals and was eager to share what they were learning. “Petter said, ‘Let’s get this out there and make it available for people,'” Poole explained.

Poole and Granli began the process of characterizing the gestures and displays they were seeing in their fieldwork. They created nine overarching categories for their gestures database: attentive, aggressive, ambivalent, defensive, social integration, mother-offspring, sexual, play, and death (since elephants have marked behavior around dead companions).

“Elephants can be drama queens and really expressive, or they can be incredibly subtle and understated. It depends on what’s going on and the dynamics of the group,” Poole said.

Mating Pandemonium

Some of the more dramatic behavior is seen in the sexual category in a display the researchers labeled mating-pandemonium.

“The females rushes forward from having mated and just starts this incredible display where she’s ear-flapping, rumbling, roaring, and making a hell of a racket, and it draws in everybody else—the whole family participates,” Poole said. “Then she’ll go over and sniff his penis and semen. She even picks [semen] up off the ground with her trunk and splashes herself with it, roaring and rumbling. This is the drama queen stuff, though in this case, it serves to attract other, more distant males.”

And then there are the subtler gestures, such as the attentive category’s freezing posture, which elephants use when they detect a possible threat. Elephant rumbles contain very low frequencies, some of which people cannot hear. Elephants can detect the more powerful of these sounds from several miles away, and these same vibrations travel seismically through the ground even farther. Picking up on these signals may cause elephants to freeze as a group and hold completely still, Poole explained.

“Someone might freeze at the back of the group first,” Poole said, “and immediately then everyone else picks up the sounds we can’t hear and the vibrations we don’t feel.” Elephants have been observed responding to sounds like other elephants, vehicles, and stampeding zebras from over a mile away, as well as distant thunder and earthquakes. Reacting appropriately to these sounds is important for their survival.

Sense of Humor

Poole recalls how elephants at play used to charge her car, appearing to trip and fall while tusking the ground (tusk-ground gesture) in front of her vehicle. “I used to think that they really did trip—no longer!” Poole said. “I have seen it enough times to know that pretending to fall over in front of the car is all part of the fun. It is one of the behaviors that led me to say that elephants have a sense of self and a sense of humor. They know that they are funny.”

Following are examples from the nine overarching categories that Joyce Poole and Petter Granli have categorized to decode elephant gestures.

(All images and video are copyrighted by ElephantVoices and included here courtesy of Joyce Poole and Petter Granli.)

Aggressive (Ear-Spreading)

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

A young elephant in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique threatens Poole’s vehicle, from which she is observing him. He spreads his ears in an exaggerated way to intimidate her. Typically in such an aggressive stance, an elephant will hold its head well above its shoulders and, with tusks lifted, direct its gaze at its adversary. As seen in the standing-tall display, another aggressive gesture described in the database, an elephant may increase its height by standing on a log or an anthill to assume greater stature, a tactic used by males when they’re sizing each other up.

Play (video) (Climb-on, play-rub, tusk-ground, head waggling)
Watch video of elephants at play as Joyce Poole narrates and explains their behavior.

Some of the play gestures in the video include climb-on, play-rub, tusk-ground, and head-waggling.

Mother-Offspring (Caress)

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

The relationship between a mother elephant and her offspring is a protective, reassuring, and comforting one. Mothers and other family members caress the young in many different ways, by wrapping a trunk over the calf’s back leg, as seen in the photo above from Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Mothers also wrap their trunks around the calf’s belly, over its shoulder, and under its neck, often touching its mouth. A gentle rumbling sound often accompanies the caress gesture.

Attentive (Periscope-Sniff)

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

Elephants have an incredible sense of smell. The way an elephant holds the tip of its trunk can tell an observer where its attention is directed. When the trunk is lifted up in an s-shape, called the periscope-sniff, the elephant is detecting scents carried on the wind. Such a movement is used if additional information is wanted, such as if the elephant is meeting strangers or perceives danger. Another common type of sniff is the sniff-toward, in which the trunk is held relatively straight and pointed in the direction of interest.

Defensive (Group-Advance)

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

Elephants advance toward Poole’s vehicle en masse in a coordinated group defensive maneuver. Elephants’ first line of defense is to bunch together in response to a perceived threat while they decide what action to take. In the photo above, an elderly matriarch named Provocadora—of the Mabenzi elephant group in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park—had instigated the group-advance. She then handed off the “dirty work” to the other females, Poole said. Tuskless, another female elephant led the assault with the support of 35 other elephants behind her.

Sexual (Driving)

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

When a male is in musth (the term for heightened sexual state), such as the one at right in the photo, and is ready to mate, he will approach the estrous female (at left) and begin pushing or driving her with his forehead prior to mounting her. This female is standing her ground to indicate she is ready to mate. She actively pushes back against the male, locking her legs. Mounting occurs once the male places his forelegs on the female’s back.

Death

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices


Elephants are empathetic and will console, feed, assist, or attempt to rouse an injured or fallen elephant. They also have an understanding of death and appear to pay homage to the dead of their own kind. Elephants may use their tusks and trunk to try and feed a dead elephant, or attempt to lift or even carry sick, dying, or dead elephants.

Ambivalent (Touch-Face)

An elephant may touch its face for reassurance, one of several gestures elephant biologist Joyce Poole has observed during her decades in the field.   Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
An elephant may touch its face for reassurance, one of several gestures elephant biologist Joyce Poole has observed during her decades in the field.
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

If an elephant feels uneasy, or is ambivalent about what to do next, he or she may engage in touch-face, a self-directed touching of the face, mouth, ear, trunk, tusk, or temporal gland, apparently to reassure and self-soothe.

Social Integration (Let’s-Go-Stance)

Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices
Photo courtesy of ElephantVoices

 

When a member of a family wants to go in a specific direction, she will adopt a particular type of posture that Poole and Granli have termed the let’s-go-stance. The female elephant initiating the movement will stand on the periphery of the group and lift or swing her foot (foot-swinging gesture) in the direction she wants to travel. She’ll purposefully face the desired direction, as her rumble call tells the other elephants, “I want to go this way. Let’s go together,” which she’ll repeat every minute or so. Her persistent calling attracts the attention of others who may slowly move to join her.

All video material was filmed in the Maasai Mara Reserve where National Geographic’s Northern European Fund is supporting the ElephantVoices project, “Elephant Partners: Conservation through Citizen Science and Web Technology.”

Learn more about this project by listening to Joyce Poole’s lecture at National Geographic Live in 2012.

Visit the ElephantVoices gestures database.
Find out more about elephant partners in the Maasai Mara.

For further reference:
Poole, J. H. and Granli, P. K. 2011. Signals, gestures and behaviors of
African elephants. In Moss, C. J., Croze, H. J. & Lee, P. C. (Eds.),
The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective
on a Long-Lived Mammal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Poole, J. H. 2011. The behavioral context of African elephant acoustic communication. In Moss, C. J., Croze, H. J., & Less, P. C. (Eds.), The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Comments

  1. Chitral Gamage
    Sri Lanka
    November 3, 2013, 6:23 am

    This is a great article, thanks for the links as well!!

  2. charlie
    http://www.fizzlive.com/member/364402/blog/view/500028
    August 17, 2013, 7:27 am

    An appealing discussion will be worth comment. I do believe that you should compose more on this kind of topic, may possibly not be a taboo subject but typically people are too few to speak about such subject areas. To the next. All the best

  3. Brunila D'Souza
    India
    August 12, 2013, 5:53 am

    Please save the elephants and may Lord BUddha protect them from all dangers.

  4. Arthur Millhouse
    U.S.A.
    May 26, 2013, 5:16 pm

    This is just a thought at this time concerning elephant poaching. As most people know there is a worldwide ban on elephant ivory and objects made from elephant ivory. Some people however do not know it is legal to own and sell pre-ban elephant ivory and objects made from pre-ban elephant ivory. I believe it is legal at this time to own (believe it or not) mammoth ivory and objects made from other types of ivory.

    The problem lies with law enforcement and consumers not being able to readily tell the difference between pre-ban and post-ban ivory. Would it be possible to feed elephants something safe that would make the ivory fluoresce under ultraviolet light? Could an elephant’s tusks be sprayed with a safe liquid that would do this?

    If this were possible, it would make elephant’s tusks worthless to poachers. Anyone with an ultraviolet light could tell it was illegal ivory. I know this would be a huge undertaking but I hope we can start somewhere to find a comprehensive solution to the problem.

  5. Nada K. Ahmed
    Egypt
    May 4, 2013, 5:13 am

    It just outrages me how such sophisticated beings are killed for ivory or taken captive in zoos and circuses.

  6. Mario
    Mar del Plata,Argentina
    May 1, 2013, 8:55 pm

    Congratulations ! Let’s preserve life

  7. MARCELO JIMENEZ PRADO.
    tlalnepantla estado de mexico,
    April 30, 2013, 8:47 pm

    Es increible la vida de estos paquidermos amo y respeto la vida animal.Quisiera que todos pensaran igual para que no hubiera mas matanzas por respeto a la fauna en general . UNAMOS NUESTRAS FUERZAS´´´´

  8. Naoki Wake
    Tokyo, Japan
    April 30, 2013, 8:25 pm

    It was very fantastic article. I am researching about interaction of human with human, with environment or other animals. I want to communicate with elephants someday.

  9. monica
    new york
    April 30, 2013, 5:12 pm

    i love elephants too and i just want to to save them just i hope when people start seeing that there going to get instinct
    that they stop!

  10. Biko
    April 30, 2013, 1:18 pm

    Thank you Joyce and Christy for your response. Indeed its fascinating to think that the matriarch might be pointing towards the danger, I hadn’t considered that. There was also sniffing just as your article showed us.

    However, what is still fascinating to me is how they all made sure to keep their trunks out of the water and curl them tightly inwards. I can imagine that maybe the older elephants have learnt to understand (from watching other videos of crocodiles grabbing elephants by the trunk) that it is unsafe to keep trunks in the water when there are crocodiles around. BUT, how did the babies know how to do this as well? They are either keen observers and copy everything the adults are doing OR, they were told to do it at that particular moment when there was danger lurking in the water.

    Unless as zoologists, you have observed Elephants tightly curling their trunks inwards as a response to all danger. To me, it looks like it was communicated that “everyone should get their trunks as high above the water as possible and unless you are sniffing, all trunks should be coiled very tightly inwards.”

  11. Christy Ullrich
    April 29, 2013, 5:43 pm

    Biko, thanks for highlighting that video of the elephants protecting their young from the crocodile, Joyce Poole found it “fascinating.”

    Regarding your question about how the elephants know to raise their trunks out of the water, Joyce Poole responds:

    “That (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGY0BHmjEtg) is a fantastic sequence of elephant behavior. Notice how the elephants Bunch in response to the threat posed by the crocodiles, ensuring that the infant is kept in the center of the family and out of harm’s way. The matriarch (the biggest tuskless female) is clearly taking charge and the others follow her lead. She decides it’s too risky to proceed and they return to shore in that tightly bunched fashion. This is a really interesting video to me as I have long thought that elephants are using the Periscope-Sniff for “pointing” as well as for merely sniffing. In other words, might the matriarch use this gesture in order to indicate to others that there is danger and they should respond appropriately – as a kind-of “head-up” – rather than just an automatic response to picking up a worrying scent in the air. Since the crocodile is in the water – and she knows that – if she wanted to sniff it she would stretch her trunk toward the crocodile. The fact that she holds it high suggests to me that she is, in essence, “pointing”. If this is true, it is a very sophisticated behavior and indicates higher cognitive abilities – an understanding that others have minds – or empathy, a capability that we know elephants have.

    When elephants swim they also raise their trunks out of the water – but that is a more automatic response, as it is the only way they can breathe.”

  12. Christy Ullrich
    April 29, 2013, 5:39 pm

    Isabelle: Thank you so much for sharing the video of Grace’s elephant-inspired performance of the elephant gestures. She’s an Oscar-winner in the making!

  13. Biko
    April 29, 2013, 4:58 pm

    I remember watching this video and wondering how they all knew to raise their trunks above the water, even the little ones. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGY0BHmjEtg
    Can you find out how to say “trunks out of the water” in Elephant?

  14. Christy Ullrich
    April 29, 2013, 11:04 am

    To answer Elizabeth’s question about sharing the elephant video narrated by Joyce Poole, you can also access and share the video on National Geographic’s main player, as well as YouTube. NG main player link is: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/animals/mammals-animals/elephants/elephant-gestures-play/
    The YouTube link is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NosWF_bdwfk

  15. Isabelle
    London
    April 28, 2013, 3:09 pm

    I teach a comedy workshop for children, in London, and just wanted to say thankyou; we used some of these findings in yesterday’s class, and the kids then did sketches as though they were elephants, with their newfound knowledge. We’re sneaking in learning, along with the play.

    Turns out a sketch with three teenage boys agitating to kick around a bag is very very funny.

    As is a small girl in an inexplicable hat narrating her own David Attenborough documentary:

  16. Viktor D. Huliganov
    Warsaw
    April 28, 2013, 2:50 am

    The “head-waggle”resembles something I’ve seen people from India doing. I wonder if they learn this from the elephants which they worship?

  17. Shelley Viehweber
    Glen Williams
    April 27, 2013, 5:11 pm

    Thank You for the article – we are having an Art Awareness Project on May 11 and 12 where we hope to raise awareness about these gentle giants. We will be donating 30% of our profits to an elephant project and the balance to our future projects coming up on elephants. We hope to send all of our profits to DSWT to benefit the orphan elephant project. Join our circle on Elephant Awareness on the anelephantstale@gmail.com.

  18. Joanne
    Ontario Canada
    April 27, 2013, 7:48 am

    I recently visited Kenya at the beginning of this year 2013. I am in love with elephants now and a supporter of the DSWTrust in Nairobi. Thank you for your article. Very informative. I am loving to learn more and more about these beautiful majestic creations!

  19. Christy Ullrich
    April 26, 2013, 3:22 pm

    Hi Mr. Hack,

    Thanks for your interest in sharing the elephant communication story on Facebook. It should be possible to cut and paste the url link to your Facebook feed.

    (We don’t have a Facebook share button on the blogs, just the “like” feature, but you can cut and paste the link.)

    Hope that helps!

  20. Tory Braden
    April 26, 2013, 3:20 pm

    You have pared it down to the essentials for elephant lovers. Have share this on Elephant Lovers Page on facebook http://www.facebook.com/elephantloverspage

  21. Peter Hack
    United Kingdom
    April 26, 2013, 2:29 pm

    Hi,
    I am unable to share this on facebook is that intentional by Nat Geo to control its copyright or something ?

  22. Christy Ullrich
    April 26, 2013, 11:25 am

    Also Joyce Poole has passed along another video of elephants sliding down a muddy hill.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEhJ_ch87FQ&list=UUcMmCwmbC-V_rX2miTQTE9g&index=1

    You can follow Joyce Poole and Petter Granli’s efforts on their ElephantVoices Facebook page. They’ll be posting more videos next week.

    https://www.facebook.com/ElephantVoices?ref=ts&fref=ts

  23. Christy Ullrich
    April 26, 2013, 11:20 am

    Thanks everyone for the great comments and interest in the story.

    In answer to Mr. Chabot’s question, the book is available at the following link (two chapters in the book are by Joyce Poole): http://www.amazon.com/The-Amboseli-Elephants-Perspective-Long-Lived/dp/0226542238/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366904976&sr=8-1&keywords=The+Amboseli+elephants

  24. Dr. Laura L. Nelson, Ph. D.
    La Crosse, WI
    April 26, 2013, 9:44 am

    Ms. Poole’s husband has a communication background, not a communications background. NO “S.” My field uses the singular noun to refer to itself and the phenomenon it studies. Communications with an “S” refers to a series of messages. This is a common semantic mistake.

  25. Dr.Jacob V. Cheeran
    Kerala India
    April 26, 2013, 12:08 am

    I have been an elephat veterinarian and knew Ms Pool’s contributions. This adds another feather in her cap. Wish her and her husband all the best in the future research.

  26. Elizabeth
    April 25, 2013, 10:57 am

    Is there any way to share that video narrated by Joyce Poole with a link to this article? I couldn’t seem to find the whole video on youtube or ElephantVoices…

  27. Joseph F. Chabot, DVM (retired)
    North Grafton, MA
    April 25, 2013, 9:53 am

    I have been studing African elephants for over 5
    yrs. now.

    I wonder if Amazon books carries your book on
    signals of elephants & what they mean.

  28. Peter Scaffidi
    United States
    April 25, 2013, 9:11 am

    Outstanding information about the most majestic creatures on earth!

  29. Aspy
    Mumbai, India
    April 25, 2013, 7:17 am

    Great Info on this amazing creature.

  30. Danielle Moore
    Suffolk
    April 25, 2013, 2:43 am

    I love elephants so much the are amazing animals, this article has really been very interesting and it has helped me learn about them even more. I hope to work with elephants in the future and help put a stop to killing the lovely elephants.

  31. Pat Cuviello
    California
    April 24, 2013, 10:04 pm

    Great work and Great information on elephant communication.