Elephants live in several habitats, from vast savannahs to dense rainforests. This makes us wonder - how do they communicate when members travel away from the herd? And how do they ensure that no one gets lost or left behind?
The answer is quite remarkable. Elephants have a sophisticated form of communication combining signals and vocalizations to communicate an array of messages, from territorial challenges to mating calls and danger alerts. Discover how elephants communicate with one another and why males communicate differently from females.
How Do Elephants Talk To Each Other?
Elephants communicate using low-frequency rumbles, otherwise known as infrasounds.
Scientists wondered whether these low rumblings were more similar to a cat's purr or human talking, so they ran an experiment whereby warm air was passed over the larynx to simulate a breath. While cats create their iconic purr by tensing and relaxing the larynx for every sound pulse, human vocal cords vibrate with air movement. And scientists found that an elephant's way of talking is much more like our own. They ensure their vocal cords are placed correctly so that they create low-frequency vibrations when air passes over them.
Still, this is different from human vocal sounds, thanks to the immense larynx of an elephant that produces notes that are too low for the human ear to detect. To understand the frequency range used by elephants, it can be helpful to compare them with the average human voice. A male human speaks around a frequency of 110 Hz, a female 220 Hz, and a child 200 Hz. By comparison, a male elephant's rumble is around 12 Hz, a female's 13 Hz, and a calf's 22 Hz.
Some elephant calls are created with an open mouth, while others emanate through the trunk. In general, rumbles with an open mouth will be louder and higher in frequency than those that originate through the trunk.
How Do Elephants Communicate Over Large Distances?
Elephants reside in "fission-fusion" societies, forming large social groups that break and reunite frequently. During these breaks, the elephants can travel significant distances from one another, so they need a way to communicate. Thankfully, the low-distance rumbles created by elephants can travel up to four kilometers, allowing them to communicate with herd members who have broken away.
While this type of communication is effective in the vast, open plains of the savannah, it doesn't work as well in a crowded forest. A study by the Elephant Listening Project found that in the average forest setting, an elephant's rumble would only travel around 0.8km. Not only this, but the vocalization structure dissipated at around 100m, meaning the receiver would only hear part of the message.
This research suggests that long-distance communications may only work in the open plains of the savannahs. But, for herds living in the rainforest, long-distance communication is likely to be minimal or non-existent.
How Do Elephants Use Their Communication Skills?
The vast size of an elephant's brain allows them to communicate social and ecological knowledge and express itself through complex thoughts. Elephants use a vast array of signals and calls for multiple purposes.
Some calls coordinate group movements and protect the herd from danger, while others reinforce family bonds or help to attract mates. Researchers such as Joyce Poole have studied elephant calls in depth, discovering more than 70 vocal sounds and 160 signals that these impressive animals use within daily interactions.
Vocal calls are an elephant's way of talking to one another and are used in various ways. We commonly associate a trumpeting call with these large mammals, but elephants can make various sounds, including squeals, roars, cries, snorts, groans, and rumbles, to communicate. Elephants can use each type of call for different purposes by altering the tone from soft to abrasive and low-pitched to shrilling.
Still, rumbling remains the most common call for the elephant, with much of their language existing in a range that we cannot hear. But these calls are vital for the animals who can use them to find family members if they are separated from the group.
Does Elephant Communication Vary by Gender?
The life of a female elephant differs quite significantly from a male. Females spend most of their lives away from males, residing in family groups led by a matriarch. An elephant herd often includes a mother and grandmother (sometimes with a great-grandmother), their daughters, nieces, and other offspring - this usually totals around 15 members.
Young bulls remain with the family group until they are between 12 and 15, but females stay with the group for their entire lives. As elephants can live for up to 70 years in the wild, many depictions of bulls portray them as animals who spend most of their lives alone, but further research has shown that this is not strictly true.
Many juvenile males form smaller social groups with one another, where they can seek companionship and a sense of "family." Still, these groups remain unstable as elephants become aggressive and will fight one another when they enter musth.
Thanks to these different lifestyles, male and female elephants communicate differently. Research has shown that adult females, calves, and juveniles make up 70% of all elephant calls. Only 30% come from adult males. Still, vocalizing is essential for mating, and males rely on this communication to announce their rank, sexual state, and identity.
How Do Elephants Use Non-Vocal Communication?
Vocalizations aren't the only way for elephants to communicate; non-verbal signals such as touching, smelling, and caressing are also essential methods, and tactile sensations are integral to elephant societies.
An elephant's trunk is essential for its tactile sense - it can be used to explore various objects or to caress one another.
In addition, some research suggests that elephants can "listen through their feet by using the soft skin on the bottom to pick up vibrations. And sometimes, elephants will lay their trunks on the ground to achieve the same effect.
Another distinct behavior that elephants engage in is "synchronized freezing." When the entire herd stands still, they can focus on their strong senses of smell and hearing to help identify unfamiliar smells or noises. This sense of smell also allows them to keep track of odors as they walk.