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Elephant Communication and Its Types Essay

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Updated: Aug 17th, 2020


Elephants are one of the most endangered species in the world. Human incursion, as well as poaching, has contributed to a decline in elephant numbers. Therefore, increasing attention has been placed on the poaching of elephants throughout the world. Interestingly, emphasis on poaching has overshadowed other aspects of elephants’ life. Elephants have a highly sophisticated social setup. In fact, elephants have one of the most refined sign languages. Researchers have shown that elephants use various ways to communicate with each other. Research in elephant communication has taken decades in the wild.

Moreover, researchers have taken steps to study the movements of the big mammals to establish their communication tools. Tourists who view elephants rarely take note of their communication techniques. In fact, most tourists enjoy the scene without interpreting elephant movements or gestures. Nonetheless, scientists like Joyce Poole have spent most of their time studying the big mammals. In the process, they have identified various ways in which elephants communicate. Elephants have been found to have capabilities of communicating with individuals as well as a herd of elephants. This paper will focus on the various ways elephants communicate. In addition, the paper will explore past research by various scientists on elephant language (Poole and Granli 1).

Over the past decades, scientists and conservationists have developed databases, which decode numerous discrete elephant gestures. Moreover, they have come up with decoded elephant signals that have proved the existence of communication between the mammals. In this regard, scientists observe the movements of elephants as well as their postures to illustrate evidence of communication. Additionally, scientists have made sense of the significance of acoustic communication in the big mammals. Different sounds have been found to have dissimilar meanings in elephants. For instance, rumbling has a different meaning from roaring in elephants.

Furthermore, trumpeting has a different indication of screaming. In essence, different idiosyncratic sounds have distinct meanings. It should be noted that elephant postures that include ear flapping or positioning also have unique meanings. Theorists and scientists like Poole have gone to the extent of predicting and translating elephant movements and positioning through signs and gestures. Elephant gestures such as head-toss, ear-wave, and musth-walk have been associated with male elephants in heightened sexual disposition. Moreover, male elephants also exhibit the above-named gestures when an aggressive mood. Typically, elephants communicate in five main ways. These include Acoustic, chemical, seismic, tactile, and visual communication. The paper will go over each of the ways of elephant communication (Poole and Granli 1).

Just like other communal mammals, elephants have a complex line of communication. In fact, elephants use all their senses in communication. They also utilize unique abilities such as the detection of vibrations to communicate. In essence, just like human beings, elephants can feel the sense of touch, hearing, vision, and smell. In some instances, the big mammals communicate by rubbing against each other. It is worth noting that elephants show different gestures when attentive, ambivalent, aggressive, or defensive. In addition, they convey varying signals when in social integration, playing, consoling the dead, or mating as well as when integrating socially. Attentive skills occur when elephants are touching, listening, sniffing, or looking.

However, aggressive skills are exhibited when elephants are threatened or during escalations. Additionally, such displays can be noted when elephants are in retreat, after a conflict, or to force another to surrender. Elephants showing ambivalent behavior usually become apprehensive or show elements of displacement. Defensive behaviors are conveyed when predators confront elephants, this can also occur to show collective defense. Additionally, this behavior can be conveyed when elephants are mobbing their enemies. Social integration is evident in elephants when conveying special proximity. Moreover, this can also be shown when they are affiliative. Of great significance is elephants’ show of leadership and initiation. Female elephants also communicate with their offspring to protect or reassure them. On the other hand, their offspring can suckle as a way of communication (Poole and Granli 1).

Elephants also convey that they are either lonely or playful. In addition, they can be seen to solicit play as well as integrate socially with the rest. In some instances, elephants solicit for sex through advertisement or attraction gestures. They also have courtships as humans do. Of great interest is the fact that elephants perform what people call post-mortem on their dead colleagues. In fact, elephants have been observed investigating dead remains of their offspring. It is also tantalizing to know that elephants can intervene when their offspring is dead. That is, they can carry their offspring. In some instances, the elephants follow the sounds of others calling. Interestingly, an elephant can follow sounds from about 10 kilometers away. Surprisingly, elephants also show emotions Moreover, they express their physiology.

In this regard, these mammals can identify themselves or express their body condition. Furthermore, they can show that they are angry or excited, fearful, or joyful. It is also noteworthy that elephants at times relay information about their desires or intentions. All these movements, postures, and gestures have been noted in elephants. Besides, each of them has its interpretations and meanings. The following sections will look at each of the pathways of elephant communication in detail. Acoustic communication will focus on hearing as well as the generation of sound in elephants. On the other hand, chemical communication will deal with the utilization of secretions as well as elephants’ heightened sense of smell as a pathway to communication. Additionally, visual communication will emphasize on elephants’ sense of sight as well as their ability to take telling postures. The visual section will also look at elephants’ ability to utilize displays in communication. Besides, tactile communication will investigate elephants’ sense of touch as a pathway to communication. Of great interest in the paper will be elephants’ seismic communication. The seismic section will cover elephants’ heightened sense of vibrations (Poole and Granli 1).

Acoustic communication

Sound signals travel in all directions. In essence, sound signals can be transmitted to many listeners. These listeners may be the intended targeted or not. Moreover, the sound signal can reach both listeners who are seen and unseen. Acoustic signals are usually brief and purposeful. These signals can be utilized in providing information on urgent circumstances. Acoustic signals can be of high frequencies or of low frequencies. Unfortunately, high-frequency signals are usually the most affected by the environment through reflection, absorption, and refraction. This leaves low frequencies as the least affected by environmental factors. Interestingly, elephants are experts in generating calls of low frequencies. Low-frequency sounds can travel over long distances since they are modestly affected by environmental factors as compared to high-frequency sounds. Elephants generate a variety of sounds. These can be categorized based on frequencies. For instance, they produce rumbles, which have low frequencies. Additionally, they snort and roar in high frequencies.

Elephants also bark and cry in high frequencies. Specifically, elephants from the Asian region are known for their chirping tendencies. However, African Elephants are used to rumbling in low frequencies. In comparing the range of frequencies produced by elephants to those of human beings, a great disparity is noticed. Typically, children have voices with frequencies of 300 Hz, women have voice speech of about 220 Hz and adult males have voice speech of approximately 110 Hz. In contrast, elephant offspring, female and male produce sounds at frequencies of 22 Hz, 13 Hz, and 12 Hz respectively. This is quite astounding given the very low frequencies of elephant sounds. Surprisingly, elephant calls can have frequencies, which range in excess of 10 octaves. Some scientists have revealed that the big mammals can produce sounds at very small frequencies of 5 Hz. Moreover, they can also produce large frequencies of about 10000 Hz. In essence, elephants have the capability of generating both strong and weak sounds. In fact, strong sounds can reach 112 dB (Poole and Granli 1).

As explained earlier, acoustic communication examines how elephants produce a range of sounds. Actually, what happens is that as air (from the lungs) passes through an organ called the larynx. This organ measures close to 7.5 cm in length. This occurs when the vocal cords vibrate thereby generating sounds as required by the elephant. These vocal cords can be made to vibrate at certain frequencies to produce the desired sound. Additionally, the organ can be abridged or prolonged to generate varied frequencies of sound. Elephants can also amplify as well as modify various components of a sound. This can be done when the elephant allows air to vibrate in its resonating chamber. This can rely on the elephant’s ability to hold different components of the extensive vocal tract. These components included pharyngeal pouch, trunk, and larynx, among others. It should be noted that the specific pose of the elephant’s head is correlated to the sounds they make. Most scientists have suggested that elephants achieve the desired sound by conducting specific poses. In addition, they can wag their ears in certain beats. This is mainly done to change its musculature within the organ. An example of this kind of sound is musth-rumble that the elephant connects to ear-waving (Soltis, Leong, and Savage 589-599).

Moreover, elephants can perform rumbles with their mouth closed or open thereby giving out diverse results. Elephants can also rumble with their heads held low or high. Their ears can also be rapidly flapping or slowly flapping as they rumble. Elephants can hold their ears steady or they can raise their folded ears when rumbling to give different results. When elephants position their trunk in a certain manner, this can also generate trumpeting sounds depending on the speed of air within it. This can result in high-frequency sounds.

Conversely, elephants are able to generate sounds of low frequencies. Naturally, elephants have big bodies and this characteristic enables them to generate sounds of low frequency as seen in musical instruments. Specifically, this happens because elephants have huge resonating chambers. Moreover, they have the ability to increase the size of these chambers. This can result in extremely low frequencies produced. For instance, male elephants have the ability to increase their sound-making organ by about two meters. Additionally, elephants have a unique hyoid apparatus that enables them to generate sounds of low frequency. Specifically, the hyoid apparatus contains only five bones as opposed to that of other mammals that usually hold nine bones. This characteristic allows for more flexibility thus resulting in the elephant’s ability to generate extremely low frequencies of sound (Poole and Granli 1).

The generation of low frequency sounds in elephants is also boosted by the fact that elephants have a unique organ known as the pharyngeal pouch that facilitates sound production. This organ acts to loosen larynx, thereby increasing the elephant’s resonating chamber, which facilitates the generation of low-frequency sounds. The flexibility of the chamber also enables elephants to change the pitch of the sound generated. Pharyngeal pouch can also act as a water storage facility for elephants. In fact, elephants have been seen drawing water from their pharyngeal. Rumbles from the most common form of sound generated by elephants.

The term rumble began with the notion that these sounds come from the elephant’s digestive system. It has been noted that elephants use low-frequency rumbles to communicate with others over extensive distances. These rumbles are usually underneath the lower frontier of human hearing. Usually, the sound loses 6 decibels for every double of the distance from its source. Moreover, excess attenuation also affects sound due to environmental factors. This allows low frequency sounds to pass over extensive areas since it is moderately affected by excessive attenuation. In grassland regions, it is estimated that elephants over 100m from each other can communicate effectively in low-frequency calls (Poole and Granli 1).

In most cases, elephant groups detach for a distance of 100m from each other. On the other hand, related elephants, which are considered as subgroups, separate for number kilometers from each other. In order to keep in touch with sub-groups which are far way, elephants use powerful rumbles. Usually, strong rumbles have the capability of attaining 112 dB if measured one meter away. This kind of rumble would reach over 2 kilometers at about 46 dB. Amazingly, elephants have the capability of recognizing as well as interpreting these sounds at a distance. Researchers have shown that elephants can also recognize the individuals making such powerful rumbles between 1 and 2.5 kilometers from the source.

During normal weather in which the sky is cloudless, the big mammals can cover an area of about 300 km2. In such circumstances, it is possible for an elephant to sense rumbles from a distant place of about 10km. However, it should be noted that the size of the call area could reduce drastically depending on weather and other environmental factors. Elephant rumbles are rich in their harmonic structure. For instance, it allows the listening elephant to estimate the distance of the calling one. This is made possible by the fact that at close range, harmonic structure is complete while at the distant range, harmonic structure is incomplete. That is, high frequencies are eliminated as the sound is transmitted over long distances (Poole and Granli 1).

Usually, the upper limit of airborne sound ranges from 12 kHz to about 114 kHz in mammals. In contrast, the lower limit of airborne sound ranges from 0.016 kHz to about 10.3 kHz. Interestingly, the elephant’s airborne sound is found in both ranges (12 kHz and 0.016 kHz). Scientists have shown that small-headed mammals with narrowly spaced ears tend to detect sounds of high frequency while bigheaded mammals with wide-spaced ears tend to detect low-frequency sounds. This discovery has revealed the reasons why elephants can detect sounds of low frequencies.

It is also worth noting that elephants are able to distinguish between background noises and calls because low frequency sounds usually have a high noise ratio. This is mainly aided with the large tympanic membrane that provides the elevated signal to noise ration. The elephant has a middle ear, which is adapted to detect low-frequency sounds. Another structure in elephants that promotes detection of low-frequency sounds is the cochlea that has a structure that is similar to those in reptiles. This structure has also been thought to detect vibrations as seen in reptiles. In essence, elephants have exceptional adaptations that enable them to hear infrasonic sounds. Moreover, it has been shown that elephants can detect very low frequencies of about 5 Hz (Poole and Granli 1).

Visual communication

Visual communication is one of the most widely studied of the modes of communication. Naturalists have also taken steps to study elephant displays. Elephants convey different gestures to exhibit visual communication. Some scientists have considered charging elephants as angry while others have considered those that flap their ears as angry too. Additionally, some scientists have also considered elephants that are kicking up dust as angry. Moreover, a number of scientists have also considered elephants who are tossing their trunks as angry. Nonetheless, ethnologists use terms like musth walk to refer to elephant displays.

Other terms used by ethnologists to describe elephant displays include distant frontal attitude and standing tall, among others. Elephants can be seen curling their trunks in a show of visual communication. Recent studies have focused on describing elephant gestures, displays, and signals. Scientists such as Kahl and Armstrong have dedicated their time to create an ethogram on African elephants. Interestingly, their ethograms have given an inclusive account of signals. Amboseli Elephants’ study has also provided vital information on elephant displays. However, it should be noted that much work is still being done to establish other visual elephant gestures and displays (Moss, Harvey, and Less 52).

Elephants have numerous displays they use in communication with each other. Elephants use most of these displays to transmit visual messages while others use the displays to convey the tactile message. Specifically, elephants use parts of their bodies to convey visual signals. These parts include an elephant tail, feet, eyes, mouth, ears, tusks, and heads. Sometimes, elephants use their whole body to transmit visual signal messages to each other or even to other kindred. For instance, dominant elephants tend to convey their threatening capability by holding their heads high as well as spreading their ears. In most cases, their heads are usually held above their shoulders. On the other hand, subordinate elephants let their heads to lay low with folded ears. It is also necessary to note that frightened elephants lift their chins and tails. This phenomenon is also seen in elephants that are excited. Moreover, socially animated elephants also tend to widen their eyes and flap their ears rapidly. Elephants may also use visual communication to signal sexual interest in others or aggression as well as concern for others. They also tend to use visual communication in conveying playful interaction (Poole and Granli 1).

Elephants have powerful eyesight in dull light. However, their sight is reduced significantly in bright light. Elephant eyesight usually reaches a range of 46m. In particular, it should be noted that elephants are choosy observers who may have good or poor visual activity depending on circumstances. Elephants can observe silhouettes although they find it difficult to carve out an item from a background. Moreover, research has also shown that when one lies beneath an object such as a truck, elephants would pass by without visual contact although the position of their trunk would show that they are aware of the individual’s presence. In most cases, elephants remain cued to the movements of predators. Elephants can also fold their ears when they seem more focused than humans do. For instance, fighting elephants that stand 50m away from one another usually has a powerful focus on each other. In one instance, a dominant male elephant folded its ears while the subordinate one looked keenly 50m away. Humans would find it difficult to notice the same thing without the use of binoculars but elephants seem to succeed. This proves that in particular instances, elephants can have powerful eyesight (Kahl and Armstrong 159-171).

Tactile communication

Elephants have been found to use tactile communication frequently. In fact, elephants touch each other deliberately with their trunks and tails, as well as other parts of their bodies. Several circumstances contribute to tactile communication between elephants. These include when playing, defensive or exploratory. Additionally, elephants exhibit tactical communication when affiliative, care-taking, or sexual. For instance, elephants can use their trunks to poke others forcefully or to express cohesion when in greeting ritual. Furthermore, elephants can use their trunks to lift their offspring. Elephants can also utilize their ears to stroke each other when playing or warming.

In addition, elephants can utilize their specialized tails to smack each other smoothly or vigorously with the intention of examining the movement of a calf. In some instances, elephants can utilize their unique trunks to stroke family members. Moreover, they can use trunks to restore confidence or help each other. Additionally, elephants can use their trunks to examine genitals as well as the mouth of family members. Trunks may also be utilized to explore dead elephant’s bodies. Furthermore, trunks can be used during play to shove other elephants away. Moreover, they can be used to examine the temporal glands of family members. Similarly, trunks can be used to block or slap other elephants. Elephants may also utilize trunks to seek reassurance from others when in danger.

In particular, elephants can use their trunks to manage the actions of others in the sexual context. Besides, trunks can also be used to test other mates as well as explore them in a sexual context. Elephants can utilize their feet, in the context of the play, to kick mischievously, or to help each other. Elephants can also use their feet to examine or caress each other. In aggressive situations, elephants can use their whole bodies to smash into each other. At times, elephants can use their heads to crash into each other. In sexual situations, male elephants can drive female counterparts using their bodies and heads. Moreover, elephants can use their whole bodies to rub sumptuously against each other.

Most elephants touch each other using their trunks. It has been established that elephants can use their trunks to recognize the variation in breadth of grooves as tiny as a quarter of a millimeter. The elephant trunk is thought to have specialized cells, which aids it in manipulating big and tiny objects. In particular, the trunk is composed of numerous sensorimotor that makes it one of the most sensitive tissues known to man. For instance, Pacinian corpuscles can pick microscopic vibrations easily in trunk tissues. When vibrations distort the nerve endings of connective tissues, an indication goes to the brain. It has also been suggested the elephant has Pacinian corpuscles under their feet that can detect seismic vibrations (Poole and Granli 1).

Seismic communication

Seismic frequency usually ranges from 10 Hz to 40 Hz. This is quite similar to the range found in elephant rumbles, which is in the second harmonic. Additionally, the frequency range is similar to that of a fundamental frequency. Usually, when an elephant rumbles, a copy of its sound is transmitted through the ground. In this regard, elephant calls are sent in two ways. It has been noted that elephant sounds can be transmitted at about 309m/s and 264 m/s through air and ground respectively. Further research by O’Connell and the company has shown that elephants get such information over long distances. In fact, elephants are able to recognize the directions from which sounds come when they pick vibrations from the ground. Moreover, elephants are able to react to messages aptly. It has been established that elephants can pick Rayleigh waves in two ways. Firstly, they use bone conduction to aid in picking seismic waves. Secondly, elephants use massive ossicles in their mid ears to pick the vibrations (O’Connell-Rodwell 287-294).

Other scientists have also suggested the use of mechanoreceptors that exist in their feet. Mechanoreceptors are also thought to reside in elephant’s toes thereby making them sensitive to seismic vibrations. Elephant trunk has layers of cells known as Pacinian corpuscles at its tip. As mentioned earlier, Pacinian layers are exceptionally sensitive to seismic vibrations. In fact, it is estimated that these layers can sense vibrations that are as faint as those in Brownian motion are. It has also been established that these layers are intense in the layers of an elephant’s foot. Usually, the layers are intense at the back and in the front of the foot. Therefore, when vibrations distort the layers, an indication is sent to the brain. It should also be noted that these layers are also dominant in the elephant trunk. Seismic communication has placed elephants as the most sophisticated mammals in the world. Added to their complex visual and acoustic communication, it is interesting that elephants can also detect seismic waves.

Chemical communication

Amazingly, elephants also use chemical communication to transmit information. In most cases, the elephant lifts its trunks to sniff chemical signals. Additionally, elephants use their trunks to examine the ground for chemical signals. When exploring the ground, elephants look for fecal matter or urine spots to recognize chemical signals. Additionally, elephants look for urine trails of each other. Trunks can also be used to sniff genitals of other elephants. Moreover, the trunk can also be utilized to sniff the mouths of elephants. In certain aspects, trunks can also be utilized to sniff the temporal glands of elephants. Generally, elephants use the following sources of scents in chemical communication namely saliva and other discharge from their organs.

Additionally, scents can be sourced from feces and urine. In fact, chemical signals are the most energetic and enduring. It should be noted that at times, elephants use discharge from interdigital and tarsal glands for chemical communication. Moreover, elephants have also been seen with discharge from their ears, which are thought to convey the chemical message. Elephants also have a sharp sense of smell that promotes chemical communication. In fact, just as humans use their sense of vision, elephants use their sense of smell appropriately (Ullrich 44).

In most cases, humans look at people’s gaze to try to guess their thoughts or intentions. However, in the case of elephants scientists look at their trunks to learn about their intentions or thoughts. In particular, scientists focus on the tip of the elephant’s trunk. The tip of the elephant’s trunk usually moves up and down or left and right. The constant turning of the trunk keeps looking for and taking in fresh smells. In essence, the trunk is ever on the look for new information. In this regard, scientists believe that the trunk mirrors the elephant’s thoughts. According to Poole, an elephant once returned 50m back to find a small piece of disposed of banana.

Interestingly, the banana was only about half a centimeter in size. This shows how powerful the elephant’s sense of smell is. Additionally, Poole has noticed elephants running away from Maasai warriors who are at a distance of more than two kilometers. According to Lucy bates and company, elephants have the ability to categorize humans within their tribal alignments based on the intensity of their hostility using a chemical signal. Therefore, chemical communication also represents a strong defensive technique for elephants. For instance, a certain elephant named Virginia made loud contact calls to her daughter when she found her urine that was drenched in the soil after separation from the mother for two days (Poole and Granli 1).

It has also been shown that elephants have the ability to use chemical communication to find their associates. This shows that chemical communication is a strong tool for elephant communication. Research has also shown that African elephants have the strongest sense of smell among mammals. In fact, the big mammals are considered to have the highest number of genes at about 2000. These genes are devoted to chemical communication. This number is about two times that of dogs while it is five times that of humans. This observation could rank elephants as the most sensitive mammal on the planet. Additionally, the elephant trunk has been seen to have muscles that amount to around 150000. No wonder, the trunk is utilized in multiple ways such as tactile and chemical communications as well as for the acquirement of water and food. Elephants can acquire adequate information from an object by merely sniffing. In some cases, the elephant can carry the object on its trunk tip for further investigation through the vomeronasal organ. Scientists have used the term flehmen response to describe an elephant’s investigative behavior. Once information is examined or analyzed by the above-named organ, it is transmitted to the bran for action.


Elephants are one of the most sophisticated mammals in the world. Their array of communication pathways is astounding. Elephants use many ways to communicate. These include the use of acoustic, chemical, visual, tactile, and seismic communication. Of great interest is chemical communication, which puts the elephant as the most sensitive mammal in the world. However, the elephant’s ability to pick seismic vibrations is also unique given its big size. Additionally, it is quite interesting to note the elephant’s family setup seems similar to the human social system. Moreover, it is quite surprising that elephants have the ability to sense danger that is more than 2 kilometers away.

Works Cited

Kahl, Philip, and Billy Armstrong. “Visual Displays of Wild African Elephants during Musth.” Mammalia 66.1 (2002):159-171. Print.

Moss, Cynthia, Harvey Croze and Phyllis Less. The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.

O’Connell-Rodwell, Caitlin. “Keeping an “Ear” To the Ground: Seismic Communication in Elephants.” Physiology 22.1 (2007): 287-294. Print.

Poole, Joyce, and Petter Granli. 2009. Web.

Soltis, Joseph, Kirsten Leong and Anne Savage. “African Elephant Vocal Communication II: Rumble Variation Reflects the Individual Identity and Emotional State of Callers.” Anim Behav 70.1 (2005): 589-599. Print.

Ullrich, Christy. 2013. Web.

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