The Communication Techniques of Elephants

Elephants understand nature on a level we can’t duplicate, but they also share an abundance of traits with humans including the structure of their brains, their ability to mimic speech, and the broad range of emotions they experience.

Mom and baby elephant

Elephants make sounds like rumbling, screaming, crying, barking, grunting, and roaring from their larynx, and they create more tonal noises from their trunks.

Photo by Fotolia/aiisha

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Animals communicate, but is it a true “language?” Their sounds have a creative aspect, but can it be called music? Animal Music by Tobias Fischer and Lara Cory (Strange Attractor Press, 2015) presents an overview of this debate about complex animal sentience, which began with the accidental discovery of whale song in 1967. In their travels and studies, these authors have spoken to scientists, researchers, and musicians in the field. They try to decode the latest neuroscientific findings about animals’ communication with each other and the world around them, what we can understand of this language, and whether this understanding might give us the tools to open a dialogue with nature like never before.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Rumble in the Jungle

Elephants prefer deep listening.

In March 2012, two herds of wild elephants gathered at the home of South African animal conservationist Lawrence Anthony. They had not been to visit the sanctuary keeper’s house for over a year, but on the 2nd of March they made a 12-hour pilgrimage back to Anthony’s home. It was the day that Anthony died of a heart attack.

It’s well known that elephants mourn the death of their loved ones with a human-like solemnity. The herd will gather at the carcass and stroke it with their trunks and then proceed to collect branches to cover, and essentially bury the body. Up to two days is spent mourning in their funereal gathering and what’s more fascinating is that elephants don’t reserve this special ceremony for their own kind. Elephants have exhibited this behaviour towards other creatures also. There are many reports of elephants who display altruistic behaviours towards not only humans but other animals, assisting the wounded and protecting the vulnerable.

This amazing event surrounding Anthony’s death opens up a whole host of questions about elephants and how they connect and communicate in this world. When Anthony opened Thula Thula, his conservation park, he had a reputation for being good with animals. In 1999 a troublesome group of elephants, who habitually broke out of their enclosures, was handed to him by local rangers. They believed Anthony could ‘talk’ with elephants, and true to his reputation, Anthony did indeed manage to keep the wild herd contained and safe within the sanctuary.

Anthony could reach these frustrated creatures who were violent and at risk of being poached and he ended up writing about his experiences in his best-selling book The Elephant Whisperer. Anthony was perhaps most famous for his rescue of animals from the Baghdad Zoo during the US attack in 2003, but it’s his work with elephants that captured the hearts of the public. When the news spread about the elephants gathering at his home at the time of his death, it made headlines all over the world.

According to conservation charity Elephant Voices, elephants are the quintessential drama queens of the animal world. They like to make a big deal of everything and commonly experience emotions not usually associated with animals like joy, anger, silliness and indignation. They rush to any site of incident, quick to offer assistance and comfort and they let others know how they’re feeling emotionally and in various other social situations. For example they call to warn others, to threaten, to announce needs and desires, to negotiate and discuss plans, coordinate group movement and assert dominance. Dr Joyce Poole, co-founder of Elephant Voices, now believes that elephants are capable of vocal learning and may even have different dialects among them, a very rare trait in the animal kingdom.

In terms of vocalisations, elephant calls are divided into two basic groups based on how the sounds are produced. Elephant calls seem to occur mostly during group coordination and mating periods and are mostly made by females. There are those that originate in the larynx and those made using the trunk. They’ve been heard rumbling, screaming, crying, barking, grunting and roaring, all part of the laryngeal group, and they can also create more tonal noises like a trumpet that are produced with the trunk.

Dr Tecumseh Fitch of Vienna University recently discovered that the unique rumbling noise made by African elephants is produced not by controlled muscle twitching, as in a cat’s purr, but by the flow of air through the larynx. The vibration of their very large vocal folds is more like human speech or song, but it occurs at frequencies below 20 Hz known as infrasound, that we can’t hear. Like humans, elephants can manipulate the structure of the sound by changing the shape of their mouth cavity and nasal passage to essentially filter the sound. Elephant Listening Project says that ‘most elephant rumbles consist of a fundamental frequency between 5-30 Hz with audible harmonics or overtones.The lowest call measured is 5 Hz for forest elephants and 14 Hz for savannah elephants. Not only low in frequency, these rumbles are powerful in terms of sound pressure, creating levels from 90 to 11 dB SPL, equivalent to heavy truck traffic or a construction site.

Elephants’ infrasonic communication was first discovered by Katy Payne in 1984 as she observed them in the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. Rather than hearing the evidence, she could sense a vibration and suspected that the elephants were making sounds but they were below our hearing capabilities. Subsequent studies carried out in coordination with Joyce Pool, William Langbauer, Cynthia Moss, Russell Charif and Rowan Martin across Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe concluded that elephants use infrasound to communicate over long distances. When the temperature shifts at sunset, cool air gets trapped under a layer of warm air forming a kind of corridor that allows these low frequencies to travel much further. It is suspected that during this time of night, elephant sounds can travel over distances of up to 7 km through dense forest; not surprisingly, elephants are the most vocal during this time.

Another quirk of the elephant that went unnoticed until only a few years ago was their ability to mimic. Recent events have led us to believe that elephants, like bats, birds and marine mammals, are capable of vocal learning and mimicry, a feature used to strengthen and maintain unity and cohesion when the group separates. Dr Joyce Poole and her colleagues noticed one of the younger African savannah elephants making truck-like sounds that were unlike any of the calls they had heard from African elephants in the past. They realised that from her night compound, the elephant could hear the trucks three kilometres away on the highway.

Another incident occurred when researchers noticed that a 23-year -old African elephant Calimero, who had lived with two Asian elephants for 18 years, spoke in the Asian elephant ‘language’. Unlike African elephants, Asian elephants typically use a chirping sound to communicate. Over time, Calimero had learned to chirp with his companions, almost to the point of excluding all the other sounds he once used. Researchers believe that this is the first kind of vocal learning they have ever seen in a non-primate land mammal. And it seems elephants can transfer this ability to other languages as well. In recent years an employee from the research staff at Everland amusement park in South Korea noticed that a 16-year-old Asian elephant named Kosik had learned to imitate human speech. Kosik was heard to repeat phrases that his handler used such as ‘lie down’ and ‘good’ and ‘no’. He uses his trunk to help form the sounds that apparently even mimic the exact voice of the handler. It’s believed that Kosik speaks clearly enough for others to understand, so much so that his special skill caught the attention of world media, with videos of Kosik popping up on YouTube.

Elephants are known to grieve, learn, play and empathise. They use tools, they cooperate and solve problems including figuring out how to escape elaborate bondage and enclosures. It is believed that elephants belong to the exclusive group of animals that exhibit self awareness, along with the magpie, great ape, and bottlenose dolphin. They are considered one of the world’s most intelligent species with a relatively large brain that contains many similarities to the human brain. Certain elements of their neural systems can be compared to those of humans, including the size and complexity of the hippocampus, the area linked to emotion, memory and spatial awareness. In fact, their cerebrum temporal lobes, responsible for memory, are relatively much larger than those in human brains, giving rise to the old adage that ‘an elephant never forgets’.

So perhaps when the elephants came to mourn their old friend Lawrence Anthony, it was because after all those years they had indeed come to understand him, not only through non-verbal communication, as he believed, but also possibly through verbal communication as well. But it still doesn’t answer the question as to how they knew he had died. We still have a lot to learn about the way elephants understand this world, and perhaps the next.


Reprinted with permission from Animal Music: Sound and Song in the Natural World by Tobias Fischer and Lara Cory, published by Strange Attractor Press, 2015.