Echo of the Elephants Home
Field Work in Africa | Amboseli National Park | Elephant Communication | Resources

Elephant Communication

Two elephants play-fighting 

Two adult elephants play at fighting.

Elephants are highly sociable animals, with all but the itinerant adult males living in tightly knit groups, so it is not surprising that they have evolved many ways to communicate with one another. Echo and her relatives use various means to "talk" to each other. They are a touchy-feely bunch: mothers gently trunk-slap youngsters to discipline them, infants beg for milk by touching a mother's legs, and all entwine trunks in greeting. They also communicate visually: a threatened elephant may raise its head high with ears spread wide to look as big and menacing as possible; a submissive animal will hold its head low, ears pressed back, to create the opposite effect.

Elephants also use chemical cues to detect coded messages. For example, males and females sniff at each other's urine to see whether the other is receptive to mating. Other helpful scents emanate from an elephant's temporal glands, which lie between the eye and ear: they drain, or weep, in response to the excitement caused by fights, mating, or family reunions. Some elephants rub the resulting discharge on tree trunks, perhaps to leave messages behind.Echo makes a particular rumble to tell her clan it's time to travel. On NATURE, evidence of adult female Erin's agitation at the sight of several males attempting to mate with her daughter Edwina is clear in her streaming temporal glands.

And of course, elephants can be quite vocal. The research of Moss and her colleagues shows that the animals have at least 25 distinctive calls. Most familiar is the bellowing trumpet, which indicates high excitement. In ECHO OF THE ELEPHANTS: THE NEXT GENERATION, several of the females in Echo's family can be heard bellowing their excitement while Echo is giving birth to Ebony. Much less obvious are an elephant's soft rumbles, some of which humans can barely hear. These rumbles can communicate dozens of different messages. Echo uses a particular rumble to tell her clan it's time to move on, a different one to tell Ebony it's all right to nurse.

Some elephant rumbles are of such low frequency that they are completely inaudible to our e

Echo and two young elephants 

Echo "speaks" to her family by vocalizing.

ars, although they travel without much loss of energy or quality. Researchers believe that elephants use these infrasonic growls to communicate over long distances, perhaps as far as six miles. Such a communication system allows the elephants to spread out and make better use of limited food and water resources while still being able to warn each other of trouble and signal suggestively to the opposite sex at mating time.

Even with all that she has learned, Cynthia Moss is still hungry for elephant knowledge. She plans to spend many more years studying Echo, Edwina, Erin, Ely, Ebony, and the other elephants of Amboseli. With more research, perhaps she and her colleagues will someday understand all the behaviors exhibited by Echo and her family. "They are clearly highly intelligent animals," Moss muses. "I'd like to get inside their heads. I'd like to know what they are thinking."


Echo of the Elephants Home

NATURE Home | Previous Features Menu

Field Work in Africa | Amboseli National Park | Elephant Communication | Resources

PBS Online | Thirteen Online