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For several decades Dr. Joyce Poole has lived among savanna elephants in southern Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, studying their behavior and ways of communication. While devoting her professional life to these always fascinating giants of Planet Earth, she has found that elephants use more than 70 kinds of vocal sounds – some so low-pitched they are inaudible to human ears – and 160 different visual and tactile signals, expressions, and gestures in their day-to-day interactions.
Elephants are social animals using a variety of sounds and gestures to communicate. Like humans and many other mammals, Poole explains, elephants have a wide range of calls and signals for different purposes to secure their defence, warn others of danger, coordinate group movements, reconcile differences, attract mates, reinforce family bonds, and announce their needs and desires.
Distinctive expressions of joy, anger, sympathy, sexual desire, playfulness, and many other emotions are among their vocal repertoire. Poole and others have found that elephants not only trumpet their calls but also squeal, cry, scream, roar, snort, rumble, and groan. Calls range from as soft as a whisper to more powerful than a jackhammer; from as abrasive as a rooster’s crow to fluid as water gurgling and pulsating through an underground tunnel.
“Elephants are extremely exuberant and expressive animals,” says Poole. “The emotion and energy in groups when they come together after they’ve been separated is incredibly powerful.”
Under a three-year program known as the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project, Poole and her team are compiling a lexicon of the different kinds of calls used by the Amboseli elephants. Visit www.elephantvoices.org.
Born of American parents in Germany, Dr. Joyce Poole spent most of her childhood and early adulthood in Kenya. She has studied African elephants since 1975, leading to a PhD from Britain’s Cambridge University in 1982. Needless to say, her thesis was about elephants! Between 1990 and 1994 she headed the Elephant Program at the Kenya Wildlife Service where she was responsible for elephant conservation and management throughout the country. In 2002 Dr. Poole was named Scientific Director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP).
Poole’s present research is part of the much larger Amboseli Elephant Research Project, launched in 1972 by renowned elephant researchers Cynthia Moss and Harry Croze. Amboseli is a 150-square-kilometer (57-square-mile) park in southern Kenya near the border with Tanzania and near Mount Kilimanjaro.
Studies at Amboseli by more than a dozen researchers have produced a comprehensive picture of elephant family life, behavior, and communication. The project has collected an extraordinary amount of data on individual members of the park’s population of a thousand elephants.
In the mid-1980s, for example, Poole and biologist Katy Payne of Cornell University discovered that elephants communicate in part through calls with infrasonic components, very low-frequency noises that can be detected as far as a mile or more away.
Today, Payne and other researchers are using this knowledge to develop ways of acoustically monitoring and studying forest elephants in Central and West Africa. They are in grave danger from poaching because of the quality of their ivory, but they are so reclusive that little is known about them, making conservation planning difficult.
Scientists say elephants have an elaborate system of communication because they need it to maintain a complex social structure based on strong family relationships. Adult male elephants live and travel alone or in loose association with other bulls, while elderly females (matriarchs) head family groups consisting of other female relatives and their young. These female units are organized into a structured system of bond groups and clans and usually stay together for life.
“Like primate social grooming, elephants use vocalization to reinforce bonds that hold the group together,” said Poole. “We see this happening several times a day.” Male and female elephants have developed distinctive calls that are adapted to their different roles. Payne has observed that elephants “are as emotional and attached to family members as human beings are, and are very much aware of the experience of others.”
Like all highly social species, savanna elephants depend on a large repertoire of calls and other methods of communication to interact appropriately with others and exchange important information relevant to their welfare and survival. Besides using vocal sounds, elephants also communicate through touch, sight, and chemical signals.
Stanford University biologist Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell has found, for example, that elephants appear to communicate in part by sensing seismic vibrations through their feet, with the soft skin on the pads of their feet acting like the head of a drum. Powerful infrasonic calls enable them to send messages and warnings, sometimes over long distances.
The team logged many of the various calls made by individual elephants and recorded details such as when, where, and under what social conditions they occurred. The different sounds are being recorded on disk; still images and video films are also being made to show the elephants’ behavior during the calls.
Poole is measuring characteristics of the call such as frequency, bandwidth, and duration to differentiate them. Samples of about 80 percent of the different known calls have been collected. “We have a huge task to measure and analyze the calls and to describe the contextual information,” she says.
One of the calls identified so far is what she describes as the “let’s go” rumble, which is used to suggest “I want to go in this direction — let’s go together.” A drawn-out rumbling, it lasts about five to six seconds and is usually repeated about every 80 seconds or so until the caller gets results.
Another is the “contact call.” An elephant calling for a distant family member emits a powerful reverberating sound and then lifts its head and spreads its ears listening for an answer. If it receives one, it responds with an explosive sound.
Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program has provided technical assistance to the project. Its archives unit, the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, plans to make the results available electronically to aid conservation, education, and scientific research.
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Are you still curious about elephants?
Check out the page of elephant facts on the Savanna Elephant Vocalization Project site.