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Planet Earth

Elephant Greeting Ceremonies are More Complex Than They Look

How do elephants communicate with one another? Understanding the large mammals is complex and requires context.

By Paul SmaglikJun 7, 2024 8:00 AM
Elephant greeting
(Credit: Iain Baguley/Shutterstock)


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Saying “hi” can be complicated. That greeting’s meaning can be altered by the tone of your voice, the tilt of your head, your eye contact, and whether and how you raise and wave your hand. And the nature of a hand wave could differ if it’s directed toward one person, a group, someone new, or someone familiar.

It turns out that greetings — and communication in general — by elephants is equally nuanced. Over the past few decades, researchers have explored three “C’s” of elephant communication: combinations, complexity, and context. Careful elephant observations — both in the field and in zoos — has helped researchers compile an ethography — a description of various behaviors and sounds the large mammals make and what they appear to mean.

How do Elephants Greet Each Other?

Recently, a study demonstrated the way elephants combine sounds and motions. They observed elephants that separated, then reunited.

One of the most frequent combinations they saw was when two females would meet again. The elephants would emit a low-frequency rumbling sound, combined with, or followed by, ear flapping.

Greetings between other elephants — beyond two females — also combine gestures and sounds. For a family that has been separated for some time, these “greeting ceremonies” can be both long and elaborate, says Joyce Poole, who has been researching elephant voices for over 40 years.

“Members rumble, roar and trumpet, secrete from the temporal glands, urinate and defecate as they come together and touch one another," Poole says. “Their heads are held high, their mouths are open, and they flap their ears vigorously. Such intense greetings may last up to five minutes.”

Elephant Reunions

If the separated elephants haven’t been apart for as long, and sense family or group members are nearby, separated by, say, a grove of trees, the greeting isn’t as long or as elaborate.

“One may approach another rumbling softly, to which the receiver will respond by lifting her head and ears and give a characteristic rising and falling rumble,” says Poole.

The exchange between a calf and her mother is similar, but not the same. The mother might rumble, then touch her calf, who will often respond by lifting her head and ears and replying with a similar-sounded rumble.

Read More: Extroverted Elephants Change Their Best Friends Over Time

Studying Elephant Behavior

Poole, who co-founded Elephant Voices, a nonprofit organization that researches elephant communication with Petter Granli, created the “elephant ethogram,” which went live online in 2021. This online database houses examples of elephant behaviors and their probable meanings. So far, it includes 322 behavior types and thousands of video clips.

Although few things surprise her after decades of field research, upon reviewing the collection of video footage, she was struck by how one action could carry many meanings, depending upon the situation. Much research has focused on a single action in an isolated situation.

“Lots of people have written about elephant behavior, but they do so in the context of what they are studying,” says Poole. “Like if you are studying reproductive behavior, then you only study the behavior during specific situations.”

Contributors to the elephant ethogram record and describe the behaviors they witness; capture information about thew number, age, and gender of participants; and also include in what context the behavior occurred.

Ear Flapping Behavior

Without that information, certain behaviors could be over-generalized or misinterpreted. Take ear flapping. Sometimes elephants flap their ears slowly when they are warm. But they also do so as part of a greeting, during mating rituals, and as part of a “let’s go” command.

Subtle variations can also add to the confusion. For instance, folding their ears backward while flapping them appears to be a friendly gesture. But ear-folding without flapping — and with the head outstretched looks like a threat.

Read More: Can Elephants Learn By Observing and Imitating Others?

Humans and Elephant Language

We may can confuse the meaning behind elephant actions because of the human perspective, says Marthe Kiley-Worthington, the director of the Centre of Eco Etho Research & Education in the U.K.

“Most humans’ conception about non-human mammal communication is greatly over-simplified,” says Kiley-Worthington, who has been studying large mammal communication for over 55 years.

We tend to think of language in “one-to-one” terms: for instance, that flapping ears means one particular thing. But humans are not just unfamiliar with the context of elephant communication, they also often tend to be poor at picking up on visual cues.

“Most mammals who can see are more aware of their surroundings often than humans are who concentrate on language,” says Kiley-Worthington.

Humans also underestimate the extent to which elephants’ social organization drives communication. “The social organization of elephants is different than from primates, of which we are one,” she says. Unlike primates, who compete for resources, elephants cooperate.

Read More: Elephants Recognize Humans By Voice

Elephant Herd Communication

As a result, elephants often resort to what Kiley-Worthington calls sticking behaviors — doing things to keep the group together. That doesn’t mean that age has no role in elephant behavior — experience matters. Younger elephants will follow an older one into a river, or toward food.

A growing body of research is helping us better understand elephant and other large mammal communication, which Kiley-Worthington hopes will help drive conservation methods, like the one she's involved with called "We Are All Mammals."

But scientists must shift their mindset to account for the context elephants communicate in and the complexity in the way they do so.

“We need to look more carefully at many more behaviors: why, when, where, how, and if they do them and what they might mean if we really want to understand the 'world view' of an elephant or other large herbivores,” Kiley-Worthington says.

Read More: Baby Elephants Move With Herd Right After Birth

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul Smaglik spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

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