Category Archives: Elephant Sounds

Matriarch and world renown Echo dies

It is very sad that Echo, the Matriarch of our primary study group in Kenya, has died. She has been the leader of her family for over 36 years and through all of the research, books and media attention that has focused on her, she has become an icon for elephants. You can read the message from ATE Director Cynthia Moss here.  Our thoughts are with Echo’s family – as this will be a disturbing time for them – with Cynthia, Soila, Norah, Katito and Robert in Amboseli, who have kept up with Echo’s daily life for so many years. All of us who knew Echo have been touched by her gentleness and wisdom, and many of us have sought solace in her presence during difficult times.

Echo has been mentioned in a few posts here on WildlifeDirect. Whenever we think of the Amboseli elephants, we think of Echo. During our field visit in December 2007 – January 2008 we did worry about Echo – since she looked thin and weak – and we are convinced that the ongoing drought has contributed to her demise.

We feel priviledged having been able to spend so much time with this gentle, caring, and wise elephant, who has been such an excellent leader for the EB family for decades.

Listen to the voice of Echo in a Let’s Go Call:

Echo and Emily Kate
Echo and Emily Kate in January 2007


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Thank you for your continued interest in the 1,500 elephants of Amboseli – Echo will live on as a symbol of them.

Kind wishes, Joyce and Petter

Playing elephant sounds for elephants – ElephantVoices visit at PAWS 15 November

Some of you have seen the responses (online or in person) of Ruby, Maggie, Mara and Lulu to some elephant sounds that I played to them when Petter and I visited Ark2000 on 15 November for a joint fundraiser for PAWS and ElephantVoices. Their responses were so strong that some people have been concerned that the sounds were upsetting to the girls. I want to take a moment here to address that concern.

Over the years we have been approached a few times by people who have wanted to use some of the calls in our collection as enrichment for elephants in zoos. I have been reluctant to allow our recordings for this purpose because I have felt that people who didn’t understand the calls or the responses of the elephants to them could misuse them. I also feel that elephants are smart enough to figure out pretty quickly that the sounds are just a ploy – that there aren’t any real elephant out there to be companions – and then playing them is just unkind.

The situation at PAWS was different because I was there, able to monitor the elephants, along with Pat, Ed, and all the others who work with these individuals and know their behavior and responses so well. Also, having watched these elephants in the past, I knew I was dealing with individuals who were relaxed and well integrated and, in particular, were elephants who had one another’s companionship and support to rely on.

Petter and I played several sounds to the PAWS elephants. The first was a musth rumble (made only by sexually active males), followed by a mating pandemonium (the excitement that follows a mating), and then a sequence in which a calf screamed (because a lion jumped on it) which was immediately followed by the angry sounds of mother elephants threatening the lion and calling in members of their family for support.

Joyce playing sounds for PAWS elephantsSo how did Ruby, Maggie, Mara and Lulu respond to these sounds?

When the musth rumble was played:
Maggie and Mara were near fence and were very relaxed until the sound is played. They lifted their heads, Mara folded her ears (a threat) and they first ran away (they were taken by surprise by a sound nearby that they didn’t expect) and then Mara turned toward the speaker. She whirled and trumpeted with excitement (Not with fear) and they all ran together, spun around, trumpeted and rumbled (throaty and modulated sound – typical excited rumble) and then some of the elephants urinated. This is typical of a high level excited response of females to the sound of a musth rumble in the wild. The manner in which they spun around together showed how bonded they are.

When the mating pandemonium was played:
The four elephants were some distance off. They listened to the sounds of many elephants and appeared not sure what to do. They started to walk away, then stopped. Ruby was in the front and was contemplating what to do. She turned her head from one side to the other trying to localize/ understand the source of the sound. She appeared unsure of what to do.

When the scream and antipredator rumbles were played:
As soon as the calf screamed, Ruby paid attention. As the mother elephants began their loud roaring rumbles, Ruby came forward and then charged uphill toward the sound and stood tall (aggressive) near the fence. Then she ran back to the other elephants and backed into them. They trumpeted and bunch in a defensive formation. Ruby charged uphill again and gave a trumpet blast – as might be given toward a predator. All the elephants moved away in a bunched formation. They held their heads high with their trunks curled under in an apprehensive posture.

The elephants heard a calf in danger and the sounds of other elephants threatening a predator and calling for help. They responded just as they would in the wild – with alarm and then with anger. Ruby showed real leadership – she acted like a mother and a matriarch in the situation and came to the defence of the group – exactly the kind of response that one would expect to see in the wild.

While it may be rare for captive elephants to react so strongly to a stimulus, the responses were very typical of wild elephants and we were able to observe a range of reactions from high-level social excitement to fierce defence. In the wild when we do playback experiments we hope for reactions like this. I have many videos of elephants running from sounds, bunching, charging and some in which they do not respond with more than listening behavior. Playbacks are a tool for learning what these sounds mean.

The elephants’ responses showed just what a strong leader Ruby (from LA Zoo) has becomes and how tight the bonds are between the four elephants. PAWS can be extremely proud of the work they have done to facilitate the development of this family unit.

Trumpets, Joyce

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.

Elephants use deafening roars

Hi again,

I apologize for the long gap in elephants sounds. I got to a point where I was forced to make a whole series of new spectrograms for the work we’re doing toward an online database of elephant calls, in addition to working with a continues flow of issues related to elephant conservation and welfare. The spectrograms of some of the rarer calls had not yet been uploaded to our current offline database and many needed first to be made. I had to make over 200 of them and each one is quite time consuming.

The last time I wrote about how elephants use sound to intimidate predators I mentioned what I call a trumpet blast. In addition, they have a couple of other powerful calls in their bag of frightening tricks! The roars elephants produce when they are scaring off lions are deafening! One of the early elephant scientists, Sylvia Sykes commented that these sounds could put “fear in the hearts of men.” Indeed they can!

I was out with the EB family one day when Enid came upon a pride of lions resting under a small Acacia. With one incredible roar from her the lions ran off. When you listen to the sound she made notice how Enid begins to rumble and then takes a deep breath before roaring at the lions. Notice, too, that after she inhales she starts with a short rumble, then roars and then ends again with a rumble. We call this type of concantenated call a rumble-roar-rumble. Can you hear the difference between the trumpet blast and the roar?

Enid roars at a group of lions resting under an Acacia: [kml_flashembed movie="" width="366" height="75" fvars="file=2ab4540" wmode="transparent" /]

Thank you, Michelle P and Anna M, for your continued support! And thank you Nathalia! Your support is very much appreciated.

Petter and I wish you all a great weekend!

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

Just like people, elephants appear to comment on what goes on around them

Elephants use a variety of techniques when they are confronted by predators. They may try intimidation tactics, including highly effective (and noisy) mobbing, or they may bunch together and take evasive action. Although much has been said about the complex defensive behaviour of elephants, very little has been written about the variety of sounds they produce in these situations, which may include a variety of rumbles, snorts, trumpets, and roars. Our observations indicate that their particular response to predators is communicated, in part, via fine-tuned signaling.When a family group is exposed to an unusual or disturbing situation, the elephants usually freeze (hold stock-still) and listen to first assess how dangerous the situation is. This behavior may follow a sharp snort or snort-rumble followed by soft, medium length rumbles by one or more individuals. As the elephants call they continue to stand alert, listening and looking.

Anthing that alarms an elephant may elicit this kind of behavior and calling pattern. For instance, elephants may call after being frightened by an unintended noise in the research vehicle, a helicopter passing overhead, the discovery of Maasai herdsmen in the area, or the roaring sounds of lions. Elephants may also give similar sounding calling in the context of a new situation, such as the arrival of a known research vehicle. And this form of soft rumbling may also be heard when a disturbing event occurs in the family, such as aggression directed at a family member. It seems as if the elephants use these calls to draw attention to, or comment upon, an unusual or disturbing event.

Here are two examples:

The EBs are frightened by a herd of running buffalo; they run away and then stop at a safe distance; Eudora rumbles. Note that the louder sounds at the end are made by the buffaloes.

A young male persistently follows Eudora as if he thinks that she is in estrus. Erin is annoyed by his behavior and chases him away, twice. Elspeth (Eudora’s daughter) and then Eudora comment upon her action.

Have a great weekend!

Some African elephant call types

Hi all,

I apologize that we have been so quiet for so long.  We are working on a major update for our website as well as on several other projects with deadlines, and these activities have limited our ability to focus on our blog. In addition we have had family visiting from around the world.

The update on our website will include a long awaited database of elephant calls and we have much to do to prepare the sounds and text for the database. I thought that I could bring you along with me as I work – sharing examples of the calls as I prepare the files. Elephant rumbles are very low frequency calls and I originally saved individual calls at a low sample rate. While this is perfect for analysis, to make the MP3 files necessary for the database and for sharing with you I need to go back the original recordings. This is quite a time consuming job – but it must be done! On WildlifeDirect I am restricted for the time being to a maximum file size of 300 KB – and that really limits what we can share with you – but I will do my best. Let me start by introducing you to some different overall call types before I get into the calls African elephants produce in specific behavioral contexts.

Listen to the different call types. Notice that elephants sometimes combine call types – as for instance a bark and a rumble, or a rumble and a roar:











Then there are learned calls which I will come back to later.

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.

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.

Edo’s origins

The comment we received from Anna in response to Meeting Mr. Nick prompts me to write this post. She mentions a male named Edo, who originally came from Amboseli’s EB family, and is now living in Tsavo National Park. Back in September 1989 Emily, one of the adult female members of the EB family, died after feeding on garbage at Amboseli Lodge.
Emily dead
After days of searching we found Emily’s carcass lying by Amboseli Lodge rubbish heap.
Amboseli garbage
Amboseli National Park Warden discusses a clean up with the managers of Amboseli Lodge.

The incident provoked an outcry, and we published a story in the Daily Nation exposing all of the items we found in her stomach (though this prompted a clean up by the lodge then, Amboseli Lodge and its surrounds are still a disgrace 18 years later). Emily died leaving her adult daughter, Eudora, and a six-month-old son. Her infant was too young to survive without his mother’s milk and we decided to ask the The Sheldrick Orphanage to take him in.

At the time of Emily’s death I was working with a Japanese film crew (remember elephants and the ivory trade were a big issue for the Japanese) and the capture of her male calf became an integral part of the story. The crew gave him a Japanese name, Edo, which is the term for the ancient city of Tokyo. Capturing Edo was no simple task and I made the mistaken judgment that a six month old elephant could fit into the back of an Izuzu Trooper. Well, when he tried to escape over the front seats he popped out one of the back windows, dented the roof of the car and pushed me onto the gear shift and I had pain sitting for the next 18 months!

When I worked in Tsavo in 1998 I had a chance to see and even record him. He was a big boy then and not permitted to stay with Malaika and the younger calves at night. He obviously missed their companionship though, because as he walked off for his night alone, he repeatedly called out to them with “Let’s go”rumbles, some of which were answered by Malaika, Ewaso and the others.

It is lovely to see his photo on the link that Anna sent because he looks so like his mother, Emily, and sister, Eudora! Note that his tusks are what we call “asymmetrical left higher” – and so were his mother’s and his sister, Eudora.

Put on your headphones to hear (low frequency sounds, difficult to hear through lousy computer speakers…)
– Edo calling “Let’s go” to his companions:Put on your headphones to hear Edo calling “Let’s go” to his companions.
– a distant Edo calling (barely audible) and Malaika (louder) answering:Edo calling, Malaika answering

Spectrogram Edo callingEdo calling, Malaika answering

Spectrograms that show time/frequency of the calls mentioned above. (Click to see larger)

Eudora, Amboseli elephant from the EB family
Eudora strolls by; note her asymmetrical tusks with the left tusk higher.
Edo (from Sheldrick trust website)
Edo (photo from the Sheldrick Trust website) looks like his mother and older sister; note his higher left tusk.