Category Archives: 6. Behavior

Elephants and people need role models

Hi all,

One of our readers, Amy Mayers, sent this to us: A Public Service Announcement put out by the US Government that uses lessons from elephant behavior (a paper on which I was an author from 2000) to argue for bettering fathering. Well, the elephants in the clip are from Amboseli (some of my all time favorites, like Dionysus), not from South Africa, and while the behavior it describes is not actually what we see in the video, and it mostly gets the sexes of the elephants wrong, the message is a good one and true for both elephants and people. The youth of both species require good adult role models in their lives. Growing up without them spells trouble.

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Elephants mobbing a predator and calling for reinforcements

Hi all,

I am back for another installment of elephant sounds 101 and we are still working our way through how elephants respond to predators. Since humans are the most dangerous predator an elephant has to face, I have been on the sharp end of some of these reactions, though these frightening assaults have almost all been in places other than Amboseli. If you visit the visual tactile database on our website, and search under the word “bunching”, you can read in more detail how after freezing and perhaps “commenting”, the first response to potential danger by members of a family group is to gather together or “bunch”. Once elephants have bunched together, older individuals at the fore and calves occupying the center, one or more larger individuals may charge the predator while emitting the trumpet blasts or roars that I have already described. Throughout a confrontation with a dangerous predator the bunched elephants may continue to vocalize with noisy, throaty, rolling rumbles, their heads raised, ears extended, temporal glands streaming and trunks reaching out to touch one another. These rumbles have a roaring quality and appear to have the effect of both intimidating the predator and calling in support from any more distant family members. I refer to the powerful noisy rumbles given in this context as roaring-rumbles.

I recorded a lovely example of roaring rumbles in Amboseli one day when I happened to witness a lion pounce upon a year old elephant calf. The calf screamed, which prompted an immediate response from its mother and other allies, who rushed to the calves side, and confronted the lion with a series of roaring-rumbles. The calls attracted the attention of other family members who responded by calling and arriving at the scene minutes later.
Bunched elephants confront a predator.

Elephant soundscapes and culture

For those of you who just happen to be in Paris this summer you may want to stop by the Musee du Jeu de Paume to listen to elephants recorded in Amboseli. On 1 July artists Virginie Yassef and her colleague Julien Bismuth open an exhibition of their work, this time revolving around a sculpture of an elephant. ElephantVoices has contributed a 33 minute elephant soundscape to accompany the exhibition.

The artwork of Virginie and her colleagues starts from a concrete situation or problem, be it political or environmental. The result may be more abstract, poetic, or quiet, but seeks to work back towards the issue or concern. For Virginie and Julien elephants are animals that continue to exert a sense of wonder, the same sort of wonder you feel as a child when you first see such an otherworldy creature. The elephant sculpture and its accompaniments are meant as an hommage to elephants – to sensitize the audience to both their marvellous qualities, and of the natural world in general, and of their increasingly fragile and threatened state.

Although collaborating with a Parisan sculptor may seem a long way from elephant conservation – we believe that protecting elephants is as dependent on public awareness as it is on anti-poaching. In Paris the voices of Ella and her family will help to secure a future for elephants by inspiring wonder in the intelligence, complexity and voices of their kind.

The following description accompanies the elephant soundscape:In the late afternoon of 3 April 1999, surrounded by her large family, Ella gave birth to a male calf. Dr. Joyce Poole photographed the birth and recorded the cacophony of excited calls made by Ella’s family in first few hours and days of the calf’s life. The sounds presented here were recorded in the first two hours following the calf’s birth, while Ella and her eldest daughter, Emma, stood just meters from the research vehicle. The majority of calls are low rumbling sounds made to reassure the newborn. But there are also more excited rumbles as other members of the family return from feeding and playing to greet Ella and her new calf. Interspersed with the rumbles are more distant trumpets of playing elephants and the short sequence of trumpets by an alarmed calf who suddenly finds himself alone and comes running to his mother’s side. A newborn attracts intense interest from everyone in an elephant family, especially from juvenile females, who want to practice their care taking skills. Ella gently pushes them away, causing screams of protest followed by rumbles of reconciliation between Ella and the youngsters’ mothers. The bonds between members of this elephant family and the intense emotions felt are expressed in the tone and tempo of their calling.

As Ella gives birth the entire family gathers around in a cacophony of elephant sound.

Erin helps Ella to assist the newborn to its feet.

Elephants intimidate predators by rushing at them with a trumpet blast

If an elephant or group of elephants decides to intimidate a predator they may do so by producing a range of terrifyingly powerful vocalizations. One of these calls is a particularly loud blasting trumpet, which sounds very different from the trumpets elephants make when they are playful or excited. Elephants typically give this blasting trumpet as they are charging at their adversary, or as they come to a dramatic stop meters away, flinging their trunk toward, throwing debris at and/or kicking dust at the object of their fury.

If you go to our visual and tactile signals database on our website ElephantVoices you can find some photographs of these behaviors by searching for the words “Charge”, “Mock-Charge”, “Throw-Debris” and “Kick-Dust.” The primary function of the blasting trumpet appears to be to attempt to frighten. It usually works!

Listen to how an elephant sounds when it is trumpeting at a predator or an animal that it is trying to scare away.

An adult male elephants trumpets at lions: z0403622.mp3

An eight year old elephants trumpets at a Maasai dog: z1701525.mp3

An adolescent female, Ebony, trumpets when bravely “seeing off” a hyena: c2000625.mp3

A female elephant in Minneriya, Sri Lanka, kicks our car

Hi all,

We apologise for the silence. It has been a very busy time for us. There has been so much to follow up on with the improvements we are planning on our website and I have been working on a couple of papers on elephant cognitive behavior among other tasks.

Before moving on to another topic I had wanted to come back to a comment that I made in one of our recent postings about there being subtle and not so subtle differences in Asian and African elephant behavior. I want to mention one of the “not so subtle” differences in this posting. Both species display extraordinary teamwork, especially when defending their families, but the specific tactics may be different.

I have been charged by African elephants many times and I have even had my car tusked by an African elephant or two. I have had elephants explore my car with their feet (once even stepping on the front bumper so that the car was shaking) but I have never had an African elephant kick the car with its front feet!

When Petter and I were taken around Sri Lanka by Lalith Seneviratne we had the good fortune to visit Minneriya N.P., which was a highlight from many perspectives. While we were there we met a very kali (fierce in Kiswahili) adult female who just wanted to get rid of everyone.

To be honest, the other elephants she was with didn’t pay her too much attention, but the tourists did. She had cars fleeing in all directions! We weren’t so easily frightened by her, though. So she threatened us repeatedly, rumbling, flapping her ears vigourously, and thumping the ground with her trunk. And finally she proceeded to kick Lalith’s car a couple of times – breaking the side light. Only then did the other adult female in her group come to join her. I had the feeling at the time that she was unusually disturbed and wondered what experiences with people had led her to behave in this way.

In the MP3 file you can hear her kicking the car and Lalith trying to get her to back off against a background of excited squeaking, rumbling and screaming sounds and her continual ear flapping.

Ester of Sweetwaters, whom Paula will remember, had tusks……

Download link

We have had some problems with our media files since WD had a serious hick-up some time ago – hopefully the link above works for you. And because of changes on WD our previous sound-links are not working. We will look into this as soon as possible.

A funny encounter with Asian elephants

Anita mentioned in a recent comment that her favourite photographs of ours are one of an elephant peering into the car and another of an elephant biting the spare tire. They are some of my favourites, too, for at the time I had the strangest feeling – that I was the one under observation not the elephants! I was very concious of interacting with intelligent individuals who, at that moment, had their own thoughts about me! I remember being very moved by the experience and to this day am trying to put words to that kind of conscious meeting of the minds that I felt.

The images were taken in Sri Lanka when Petter and I were invited by Lalith Seneveratne (known for his work on elephant rumble detectors and trip wires to keep elephants out of farmers fields) on a tour of elephant habitat. I remember that safari with great fondness and it holds some of my most memorable elephants experiences. Lalith took us on a two week safari to see elephants in four different national parks.

The first stop was Uda Walawe and this particular group was one of the first that we met. The adult females were quite stroppy, standing tall forming a defensive wall. At the same time they were so engaged with us – coming up close, staring at us and rumbling and touching one another. Their behavior was very like African elephants, but with some subtle and not so subtle differences that I still find so fascinating. It is these subtle differences that make me yearn for the possibility of finding a way to study Asian elephant communication.

A wall of elephants

A wall of adult females.

After the adults created a hullaballoo about us, the calves and juveniles formed a little gang of six and decended upon us. They surrounded the car and then peered in through the windows, oggling us! I had the distinct feeling of being an elephant pet. This kind of behavior – adults standing back making a commotion while the juveniles made a play thing out of us, is not typical of African elephants.

People as pets

Feeling like the elephants’ pets.

Asian elephants have different eyes than African elephants whose eyelids are more prominent causing them to appear less engaged, perhaps. An African elephant (at least in the wild) has to be very curious to look you straight in the eye. But these “little” guys came over and literally studied us! I felt like a fish in a tank, or rather an animal in a cage! And then one boy goes to the rear of the car and chews on the spare tire.

A juvenile bites the spare tire.

Elephants and social learning

Learning through watching the behavior of others, or social learning, is an important component of the acquisition of behavior in elephants. For instance, young elephants learn what to eat by reaching up and sampling what is in the mouths of their mothers. And young females learn how to successfully raise their calves by watching adult females and through their own experience as allomothers.

I have often wondered how young males make the transition from their female dominated natal families to becoming an independent adult male. The two worlds are so very different. Are the changes necessary just programmed in, or do young males learn how to be a properly functioning adult by watching the behavior of older males?

From watching elephants, I believe that, just like us, it’s a little of both, but having access to role models is very important for the acquisition of normal adult male (or female) behavior. Many of you will have heard of the case where young male orphans from a cull were released into Pilanesberg National Park. Without older male role models they adopted aggressive and anti-social behavior, even making a habit of killing rhinos. Likewise, captive male elephants in zoos and circuses have no possibility of learning from normal adult males. Males are routinely separated from other elephants, so there simply aren’t any socialized males to learn from.

I have often watched the behavior of young males in the company of an older musth male, with a feeling of tenderness in my heart. These newly independent youngsters watch the older males so closely, doing their best to follow everything that the older males do, without drawing too much attention to their presence. For instance, when an older musth male moves through a group of females testing a series of urine spots on the ground, a young male can often be seen standing nearby paying close attention but trying to appear as unimposing as possible (his head low and facing slightly away). Once the older male moves on the younger male follows behind sniffing at all the same places.

elephantvoices_social_learning290.gifIn December we watched a very sweet interaction between two males, which shows just how early a young male can begin to learn social roles in the wild. In the series of photographs taken by Petter, a calf of less than a year watches as a teenage male tests some recently deposited urine. The teenager approaches the urine spot, and stops to sniff carefully, placing his trunk tip over the urine, and blowing warm air out (so as to release volatile substances) and then breathing in. An infant male approaches him, and using his trunk and his eyes he follows closely what the older individual is doing. He reaches toward the tip of the older male’s trunk as he exhales and up toward the older male’s mouth as the male puts a sample of urine in his mouth against his vomeronasal organ for testing (Flehmen). The little male then tests the urine for himself. Having satisfied his curiosity, the infant male wanders back to his mother’s side.

Trumpets, Joyce

The Floppy-Run is a signal of elephant fun!

Some of our contacts were very enthusiastic at the possibility of learning more about elephant behavior via our blog, so I am going to continue to share some elephant behavior with you.

As I mentioned, our new photo database means that we can easily search on a specific behavior and find all the images that we have of that behavior. This new system is essential for updating our visual and tactile database on

The other day a colleague sent me a photograph of elephants engaged in Floppy-Running. I knew that we had even better images in our database and found them with a quick entry of the behavior. The pictures taken in January this year are so lovely that I thought I would share them with you and take the opportunity to write a bit about Floppy-Running.

The term was originally coined by Cynthia Moss to describe the loose, floppy running gait of a playful elephant. In Amboseli Floppy-Running is most often observed when elephants have had plenty to eat and are leaving the swamps at the end of the day. Playful behavior is often contagious, and though juveniles and calves are the most likely Floppy-Runners, adult females sometimes lose all sense of decorum and join in. I have laughed aloud as I watched several families Floppy-Run across the plains to the tune of a cacophony of pulsated play trumpets. The elephants go all loose and floppy, shaking their lowered heads from side-to-side, allowing their trunk to flop about, their ears to flap wildly against their necks and curling their tails up high.

Have a look at the sequence of beautiful images taken by Petter as a family Floppy-Run across the open plain. A wonderful, funny sight…


How can you tell when an elephant is listening?

To study elephant communication it is crucial to understand the body language of elephants – for these are clues to what might happen next. Petter and I are pretty good at anticipating what elephants are about to do and have built up a database on our website ElephantVoices, where you can learn all about the signals, postures and gestures of elephants. We are currently updating this database so you may want to keep an eye out for new additions.

One of many important cues we use is watching for listening behavior. Since elephants can communicate over long distances, and since some of their communication is inaudible to us (but audible to the elephants), this behavior is a cue that the listening elephant has heard something, or someone, and might call in answer.

So what are the cues we use to tell that an elephant is listening? An elephant rarely stands stock still except when listening or resting; usually some part of the body, ears, trunk, tail is in motion. A resting elephant relaxes it’s head and ears allowing its head to hang below its shoulders and its ears to flop forward. A listening elephant, on the other hand, stands with its head raised and its ears lifted and slightly extended. The body and extremities of a listening elephant suddenly stop moving, and it simultaneously raises its head and stiffens its ears. Sometimes an elephant may turn its head from side to side in an attempt to localize a sound.

Have a look at these photographs of listening elephants.

Three-Holes listens

Three-Holes listens.

A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound of interest.

A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound of interest.

Beckwith listens after calling to her family.

Beckwith listens after calling to her family.

An adult female listens, and turns her head from side to side attempting to localize a distant call.

An adult female listens, and turns her head from side to side attempting to localize a distant call. Put on your headphones and listen to the sound linked below. You will hear a distant elephant calling, followed by an answer from the listening female. Play sound. Hopefully it works for you – we are currently having some problems setting up media files on the blog.
Musth male, Solonga, listens in for the sounds of distant females in his search for mates.

Musth male, Solonga, listens in for the sounds of distant females in his search for mates.