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Wild male displaying a threat signal
Fanning out of ears is a mild threatening signal. It shows that the elephant needs more space between himself and the intruder. This wild tuskless male is in musth, a period of heightened testosterone levels, revealed by the dark seretion on his cheeks. Contrary to popular belief, elephants in musth are not "mad", as can be seen from the measured response of this male.

Rumbling      Wrinkled trunk
Above left: When an elephant is communicating with infrasonic rumbling - sounds too low for us to hear - the upper part of the trunk bulges out slightly, and the mouth may be partially open. At the end of the vocalization, the elephant typically flaps its ears for a few times.

Above right: It often appears that when an elephant is feeling tense, it contracts the trunk muscles. This is revealed by wrinkles on the skin of the trunk, as well as by the trunk looking shorter. Conversely, the trunk of a relaxed elephant is smooth and hangs down long with the trunk tip lying on the ground, as in the photo on the left.

Females with a calf in the wild
Wild females with a calf.

Wild males playing
Playful interaction between wild males. The one on the left is over 40 years old, revealed by his sunken temples - at an age in which males were previously believed to be solitary recluses. The male on the right is a juvenile.

Communication and social behaviour

Elephants communicate by a wide range of visual signals, vocalizations and touches. They are also highly social animals. The social organization of wild elephants is the most complex social system known in any animals.

Visual and vocal communication

Even though sight is one of the less important senses for elephants, their communication also includes visual signals. The most familiar to many is fanning out the ears, which tells you have come too close for comfort. This is a mild threat; a more severe warning would involve raising the head high and/or slapping the ground with tunk. There also is a wide repertoire of other visual signals, such as an exaggerated running posture to invite another elephant to play.

The vocal repertoire of elephants is extensive. Some examples include trumpeting, which is a signal of agitation or alarm, and a quick succession of high squeaks when even more frightened. Among social contact calls, the most common is rumbling. Some rumbles are so low-pitched that we cannot hear them, others sound like a low, load, continuous roar. Elephants also are amongthe few mammals with the ability to mimick sounds. It is possible that their natural vocal communication is partly learned from other elephants at a young age.

Tactile and scent communication

Touching each other is an important part of maintaining social bonds, especially touching each other's head and trunk with one's own trunk. When an elephant touches another on the head, the areas touched most often include the temporal glands (halfway between eye and ear) and the mouth.

Similar to most mammals, the excellent sense of smell allows elephants detect detailed information on each other's health, hormonal status and more. Strictly speaking, this is not communication, as the messages are not sent intentionally. Nevertheless, it is a crucial aspect of information transfer.

Family groups of females

Female elephants often live in so-called family groups, which consist of closely related adult females and their calves. The group is led by a matriarch: the oldest female in the group, often the grandmother of the calves. Such tight family groups contain a maximum of three generations. Once the fourth-generation calves are born, the group splits, but the resulting groups usually continue to remain in frequent contact.

Caring for each other's calves is an important part of living in a family group. Females defend each other's calves from predators and often also let other calves suckle milk.

Male-male interaction

When young males reach adolescence, they leave their mothers' groups and join with other young males to form bachelor groups. As for older males, it was previously often assumed that they lived alone and only met females to reproduce. However, recent research on Asian elephants in the wild has shown that males of all ages actually have rather frequent, friendly interaction with other males and females, regardless of their reproductive status.

Fission-fusion societies

Social organization of elephants has been mostly studied among African savannah elephants, but there are indications that other species of elephants have a similar structure. The social system is a so-called fission-fusion society. This means that groups familiar to each other sometimes join each other, sometimes travel apart, depending on resources such as food availability.

Fission-fusion societies have been found in a few species such as chimpanzees, but the four-tiered structure of the fission-fusion societies of elephants is more complex than that of any other animal. The first tier - the basic unit - is an adult female with her dependent offspring. The second tier is the family group that also includes her sisters and mother with their offspring. These usually stay together at all times.

During rainy season, when food is abundant, the third tier assembles. Family groups have favourite groups among other families, often relatives, with which they fuse, forming herds of dozens of elephants.

The fourth tier of organization gathers ony occasionally, for example when some family has lost their matriarch. Even when not physically meeting, such a fourth-tier group has a shared territory that its members defend from other fourth-tier groups.

Explore further

For more in-depth information on how elephants communicate, as well as on elephant behaviour, conservation and welfare, see the website of Elephant Voices, a research and conservation programme with a long history in Africa.
Females and calves in the wild
Females and calves in the wild.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere