Elephant Communication - Vocal

Despite years of research conducted by committed experts and elephant enthusiasts, the elephants’ abilities to communicate with one another in a meaningful and genuine way continue to mystify onlookers. Because their clan-style family structure is relatively complex, elephants rely on an equally intricate communication system to ascertain roles and responsibilities.

Interestingly, communication amongst these majestic beasts is not only use to convey information regarding location, social structure or ecology. It is also used to convey emotions and thoughts to others, creating tight bonds that are not easily broken.

Elephants communicate with one another to warn them of potential dangers, organise the group, attract elephants of the opposite sex, secure defence, and to reinforce family bonds. Needs and desires are also communicated to other members of the herd in this way. The basic language structure of the elephant is thought to comprise 70 vocal sounds. These are coupled with 160 signals, gestures and expressions (non-vocal)

The most common communication method is the vocal call. These calls can be in the form of the typical trumpet call, roar, groan, snort or squeal, each with their own unique pitch of soft, shrill, low-pitched or rumbling. A burst of deafening blasts is also emitted as an alarm, upon which members of the herd encircle the calves in a protective ring. Each elephant has a unique ‘voice’ and is recognisable to the hundreds of other elephants within a half-mile radius. Vocal calls are commonly used by mothers when caring for their calves, during disagreements or to rally members of the herd together for mass movements.

Many of the sounds emitted by elephants are not audible to the human ear. The low-frequency sounds can be as deep as 1 to 20 Hz. At such a frequency, these sounds travel powerfully for miles. Such long-distance reach enables effective communication to distanced animals, whether for protective or mating purposes. These aid in reuniting family groups.

The contact call is one that assists elephants to find family members over longer distances. The individual animal that desires to reunite with the other family members will emit a low rumble. This sound reverberates powerfully as it travels the surrounding area. Directly after making this sound, the elephant will raise its head to listen for a response. If a relative responds to this call, the elephant will sound an explosive noise. This pattern is then repeated until the elephants are reunited; a process that can last for hours. When the family members do eventually meet up, this occasion is marked by screaming, rumbling and the famous trumpet.

Like humans, male and female elephants communicate in different ways. However, this is because they do not live together as a human family, but in separate herds, with different priorities. Female adults, adolescents and calves are responsible for the majority of communication (approximately 70% of all known calls).

Males rely on communication largely for mating purposes. They use their ability to vocalise in order to announce their sexual state, their identity and their rank within the herd. Along with the secretion of a smelly substance, bulls looking to mate also emit infrasound calls to warn other bulls to stay away in order to avoid an aggressive confrontation. A female uses a similar infrasound to inform males that she is receptive to mating. After mating, the cow will release post-copulatory rumbles of 6 grunts.

Although we have only a basic understanding of the rapport that exists amongst these undeniably intelligent creatures, this knowledge allows us a brief glimpse into their mysterious insight and strongly entrenched relationships.