If you go by Hollywood, elephants only converse in trumpets. However, this couldn't be farther from the truth. Elephants not only make noises to communicate, they have their own sign language, and even send out vibrations we humans can't catch!
Researchers have spent dozens of years observing elephant communication, and they've shared some of their findings, which I thought I'd pass on to you. There are several facets of elephant communication; more than with human communication, actually. Here are the different categories, as organized by Elephant Voices:
Visual- Physical postures and displays of behavior, and measuring them through their sight. While this says little about their visual communication, the physical gestures elephants use help us understand their moods and situation. In fact, researchers have termed this type of elephant communication a form of "sign language" for the species.
Raising a trunk to sniff the air in apprehension
Approaching a herd with head down (a sign of submission)
Flapping ears and widening eyes to show excitement
Folding back the lower part of the ear in a serious threat
Tactile- using their sense of touch, elephants are able to communicate moods, relationships and conditions through touch. This communication uses their trunks, feet, ears, tail, tusks and sometimes their whole body.
Swatting a tail gently to feel for a calf
Rubbing ears affectionately in play
Feeling the body of a dead elephant
Bumping another elephant aggressively
Chemical- Using the secretion of substances and sense of smell to send messages. There are four different elephant secretions that communicate something: saliva, urine, fecal matter and temporal glands (sac between the eye and ear). Elephants are constantly smelling (duh), but you can actually follow their train of thought just by following the tip of their trunk.
Elephants can locate and read smells with incredible accuracy, pinpointing the source of a smell from several kilometers away, and have been known to identify even the slightest odors, from the smell of a t-shirt to that of a gun, which can trigger a response to human presence, whether positive or negative.
Reading whether a female is ready to mate from her urine
Observing an elephant's mood from their temporal gland secretions
Locating food and water sources
Identifying what other species may be nearby
"They are living in a very chemosensory world. Amazingly so."
Acoustic- Producing and hearing sounds. This is probably the most amazing form of elephant communication, because it can be done over many miles of distance, between individuals, family members or separate herds. These signals travel through the ground, in frequencies so low our human ears can't perceive them, and are felt through the feet and trunk. Growls, rumbles, squeaks, barks, cries and trumpets are all sounds elephants make, but rumbles and growls travel best over distances, and can communicate immediate messages effectively.
Warning a herd about the presence of lions
Finding the herd when separated
Spreading the word about a new birth
Alerting males to females ready to mate
So there you have it, the four main categories of elephant communication. The next time you see an elephant, see if you can use these cues to guess what they're saying. You just may hear a fascinating piece of elephant news!
Kerry Skiff is a conservation advocate and recent journalism graduate of Northern Kentucky University. She follows the ivory trade around the world, and uses her voice to educate Americans about their role in animal conservation.