Researchers decode how elephants form "sentences," lending insight to their complex communication

A new study explores multimodal communication tools employed by elephants, underscoring their unique intelligence

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 27, 2024 7:10AM (EDT)

View of african desert elephants standing on field against clear sky, Cape Town, South Africa (Getty Images/Brian Durkin/500px)
View of african desert elephants standing on field against clear sky, Cape Town, South Africa (Getty Images/Brian Durkin/500px)

African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) are the world's largest living land-based animals, reaching a height between 10 and 13 feet (roughly 3 to 4 meters) and weighing between 4 to 7 tons. One in particular, Doma, is the most dominant male in his group. Yet he seems to have developed this superiority as much through charisma and kindness as from sheer girth. All the other elephants in his herd run to him at the first sign of trouble; during calmer times, they willingly present him with their rumps in a seeming sign of submission.

"I could feel the rumbles echoing in my body and smell the elephants (and even secretions!) so close."

One day Doma's popularity's with a particularly playful female led to a special moment for a human — Vesta Eleuteri, a PhD student at the University of Vienna's Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Biology, who witnessed a Doma moment of courtship quite intimately.

"I found myself a meter away a greeting between Doma and Kariba and could feel the rumbles echoing in my body and smell the elephants (and even secretions!) so close," Eleuteri told Salon. "It felt like it was easier for me to feel what they were feeling in that moment."

Eleuteri has learned quite a bit about what elephants feel and think, thanks to the research she and a group of fellow scientists performed on semi-captive elephants at the Jafuta Reserve in Zimbabwe. In the study, published this month in the journal Communications Biology, Eleuteri's team determined that elephants communicate with each other in complicated ways using "multimodal communication" and specific to who happens to be in their audience.

As they rumble, flap their ears, rub their trunks, release sex pheromones and engage in other silent visual, audible and tactile gestures, the massive animals are not engaged in chaotic nonsense behavior, as some previous scientists have argued. Instead, they are putting together sophisticated "sentences" to express detailed thoughts.

"We also found that elephants greet by appropriately targeting visual, acoustic and tactile gestures at their audience depending on the audience's state of visual attention," Eleuteri said. "For example, if we're in a noisy bar and I want to tell you 'let's leave' and you are looking at me, I might use a visual gesture, but if you are not, I might touch you. The ability to target visual gestures was previously shown from captive elephants towards a human. So finding this capacity between elephants, although quite expected for people who know elephants, was also novel."

Just like humans use verbal, written and body language to communicate, animals across species use different senses to send messages. A large number of primates use a mixture of senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and so on — in order to communicate. Birds and crickets are known to do this for courtship rituals, while squirrels and insects do so to ward off predators. There are some species of flies that use a combination of vibrations, chemical signals and visual and acoustic displays in order to mate, while some chimpanzees employ specific syntheses of vocal expression and gesture to get attention.

Yet even within the diverse spectrum of animals that communicate with more than one sense, elephants are something altogether special. Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of the charitable organization Wildlife Direct and star of the Disney+ series "Secrets of the Elephants," told Salon last year that she recalled seeing herds of elephants suddenly stop walking and freeze "still as statues" for seemingly no reason. Yet there would in fact always be a good cause, as indicated that one elephant might be waving its ears.

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"I still have hope that elephants will manage to survive and there are amazing people working hard for elephants and their future."

"What is happening when they stop and they all stand still is they're all listening," said Kahumbu. "They'll be listening with their feet. They'll be listening with their trunks, which they rest on the ground. They'll be listening with their ears. Then they will rumble. Some of their rumbles we cannot hear because it's happening in a sound frequency that we cannot detect. The matriarch or the biggest bull will make a decision about what to do next."

She added, "It could be we're gonna go left, we're gonna go to that mountain, or we're gonna wait."

Elephants have such complex communication that they may even have names for each other, as Salon has previously reported. A study published last August, though not peer-reviewed, comes from eight researchers across the U.S., Kenya and Norway and offers promising insight into how non-human species communicate with conspecifics, or other members of the same species. “Here, we show that wild African elephants address one another with individually specific calls,” the authors wrote.

Although they possess impressive intelligence, elephants are still quite vulnerable as a species. Roughly 10 million African elephants roamed that continent at the turn of the 20th century, but only 400,000 are left in Africa today. They are threatened by ivory poaching, habitat loss, climate change and other ecological problems humans have created for them. Elephants that have had bad interactions with humans than go on to develop further negative relationships with local communities. It is increasingly difficult for conservationists to protect the species in the wild. But Eleuteri refuses to give up hope about the elephants' future.

"Despite the dire situation, I still have hope that elephants will manage to survive and there are amazing people working hard for elephants and their future," Eleuteri said. "I think it's important to raise awareness on how special, ecologically important, and how threatened elephants are to reach a wider group of people who can help them directly or indirectly."

Does decoding elephant language bring us one closer to someday being able to talk directly to elephants? Probably not, Eleuteri explains.

"Well, humans already communicate with elephants in a similar way they do with dogs," Eleuteri said. "Whether we will be able to decode their communication and use it to communicate directly with them is something I am not sure about. I like to think that some things will remain a mystery."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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