Elephants use vocal means of communication most commonly. These are manifest in audible calls that convey specific messages. These are used to reconcile with fellow elephants following a disagreement and to communicate the movements of the herd to each of the members. It is also used to care for the young as well as to signal the end of a meal and the time to move along. Calls are, like human voices, recognisable to a host of other elephants within the area.
The most commonly known sound used to communicate vocally is the typical trumpet call. Elephants do, however, have an entire repertoire of sounds, including a squeal, scream, groan and rumble. The mood and the objective determine the pitch of the sound. There is also an urgent, loud, repetitive scream that alerts those in the vicinity to gather around the vulnerable young to protect them from a present danger. The noise that the elephants use the most in their communication is the deep grumbling, unique to each elephant.
Most of the noises are used in a decibel range that is inaudible to the human ear. Humans are only capable of hearing the overtones of low frequency sounds of between 1 to 20 Hz. These low sounds are so powerful that they can travel long distances, carrying important messages to elephants far away. They are known as infrasonic noises. They enable elephants to transmit warning messages and pleas for help. There is also a specific call that is used to locate family members that have split from the herd. If this call is reciprocated, the elephants will unite with those lost family member with great rejoicing and emotion. Notably, 70% of all communication is performed by females and their young, as they are far more socially active than the solitary elephant bull.
They also assist cows to notify bulls that they are available for mating. Because females are selective about the bull with whom they will mate, notifying a broader spectrum of male elephants allows her more choice to ensure that her calf is as strong and healthy as possible. The male also needs to emit a sound that informs all other bulls in the area that she is no longer available for mating. It is a warning for them to stay away as bulls that are in breeding state, or musth, are aggressive. After the act of mating is complete, the female emits a series of 6 grunts, repeating this for up to 30 minutes.
NON VOCAL CALLS
Humans use body language to convey messages that transcend verbal communication. Elephants also use non vocal calls to convey information. When groups of elephants pass each other, the members of the groups touch and caress each other amicably with their trunks, and smelling one another. By staying in physical contact, this type of exchange ensures that bonds among individuals, herds and groups remain strong.
The trunk is an integral part of non vocal communication. Elephants use it to fondle and smell other elephants and objects. For instance, when a group of elephants stumble on the carcass of another, they will explore and smell the bones with their trunks. This act serves as sign of mourning and regret over the loss of the deceased, even when that one did not belong to the particular herd.
A unique method of non vocal communication is the vibration emitted through the soft feet-pads of these gentle giants. Another interesting method of communication is the ‘freezing’ of several animals at the same time. When elephants sense stimuli that may assist in their safety and well-being, they will freeze, alerting others to the possibility of danger.
Elephants are unique in so many ways, but their capacity to communicate and the innovative ways in which they do incites an even greater sense of intrigue and respect for these very special animals.