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Elephant calls can be divided into two broad categories based on the way that the sound is produced. Sounds originating in the larynx are laryngeal calls. Trunk calls are those produced by a blast of air through the trunk.

Elephant calls can be further categorized into presumed call types by ear and by visual inspection of spectrograms. For instance, one can easily hear broad differences between the rumbling, screaming, and crying sounds produced by elephants, and on a spectrogram one can see the difference between a noisy or tonal sound. Finally, one can measure structural differences in the time and frequency characteristics of sounds.

Elephants use broad range of calls

Female vocalizes during mating. (©ElephantVoices)Based on these broad differences as well as previous work of our colleagues, we have described 10 types. The laryngeal types are: rumblerevroar (with subtypes noisytonal, and mixed), crybarkgrunt and husky cry and the trunk call types, trumpetnasal-trumpet, and snort.

Besides these primary call types elephants frequently emit composite calls that grade from one type into another. This rich range of amalgamated calls includes snort-rumbles, roar-rumbles, rumble-roar-rumbles, cry-rumbles, bark-rumbles and trumpet-rumbles. Elephants are most likely to produce these composite calls when they are disturbed or excited.

The elephant's capacity for vocal production learning, or imitation, creates the potential for an additional call type category namely, Imitated and Novel Calls that, while structurally unique, may not be socially relevant. These include croaking, squelching, purring and truck-like sounds as well as other idiosyncratic sounds, such as the elephant in a Korean zoo who imitates the voice of his handler.

Sound collection from decades of fieldwork

In the midst of a bit of chaos in the family caused by a baby wildebeast an infant begs to suckle. (©ElephantVoices)This elephant call type database together with the more comprehensive elephant call context-type database represent a sample of our elephant call collection and is the result of many, many years of fieldwork, analysis and writing. The two databases expand upon a body of work that appear as Poole, J.H. 2011. The behavioral contexts of African elephant acoustic communication. In: The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal. Moss, C.J. & Croze, H.J. (Eds.) University of Chicago PressThe chapter is more technical and addresses statistical differences between the different call types and context-types. For those of you interested in obtaining more detailed information about these results, or for obtaining access to calls for further analysis, please get in touch. We welcome collaboration.

The sounds on the database are the copyright of ElephantVoices. If you wish to use them commercially or otherwise, please contact usLow frequency infoIf you wish to cite this work please use: Poole, J and Granli, P. 2009. Database of African elephant acoustic communication, www.elephantvoices.org.

To view the full structure of this database, also showing the selection of sounds uploaded, click here.

Eudora squelching. (©ElephantVoices)

Sounds originating in the larynx are referred to as laryngeal calls and include the rumbles, revs, roars, cries, grunts, barks and husky-cries.

The most commonly heard call type are the rumbles, representing over 90% of our collection of sounds.

Rumbles are the most frequently heard call type across both sexes and all ages of African savanna elephants, and may be easily distinguished from other call types by their very low frequencies and clear harmonic structure. Over 90% of the calls in our database are rumbles. A large number of specific stimuli evoke rumbling sounds and these are described in detail in the database which examines the behavioral contexts of calls. Rumbles originate in the larynx (source) and resonate (filter) through the pharyngeal pouch, the nasal passages of the skull and through the trunk. Rumbles can be produced with the mouth open and others with the mouth, apparently, closed. Open-mouthed calling is associated with the louder, more modulated rumbles.

Rumbles are highly variable, graded calls containing fundamental frequencies ranging between 8 and 34 Hz depending upon the caller’s age, size and excitement level, as well as the call context-type. Some rumbles are highly modulated, powerful sounds, others rise or fall in pitch, some rumble contours are flat, some undulating, and still others are jittery.

Rumbles range in duration from less than half a second to almost 12 seconds, and may be emitted as a soft fluttering whisper or an explosive throaty resonance with sound pressure levels up to 103 dB extrapolated to 5 meters from source. Very powerful rumbles tend to be both highly modulated and contain more noise. Bandwidths range from 38-1000 Hz with some of the variance being explained by the distance of the microphone from the source. Although there is considerable variation within age classes, the rumbles of older individuals are longer in duration and lower in frequency than those of younger individuals.

The rev was described in 2003 by Leong and her colleagues as a short tonal harmonic vocalization, less than a second in duration, and almost always followed immediately by a rumble. The structure of the rev is similar to a short rumble, but at between 50 and 90 Hz its fundamental frequency is significantly higher than any known rumble. The revs recorded in captivity by Leong are buzzing or revving sounds.

We located four such revs in our collection, although none of them occurred in a known context. Therefore, very little more than what Leong described is currently known about these infrequent call types. Their very rare occurrence in the wild suggests that they may be an artifact of captivity and possibly another example of a learned call.

Roars are powerful, highly variable bellowing, screaming, shrieking or squealing sounds. They are divided into three main types. Noisy roars are very noisy calls and tend to be unmodulated. Tonal roars are those in which greater than 50% of the call is tonal and noisy elements, if there are any, occur only at the end of the call; they may be highly modulated, some reaching a clear crescendo before falling. Mixed roars alternate between noisy and tonal or contain noisy components making up more than 50% but <100% of the call. All roars sub-types may start, end, or start and end, with a rumble in which case they are termed roar-rumbles, rumble-roar-rumbles or rarely, rumble-roars.

Roars produced by infants are generally higher pitched than roars produced by adults and the terms “screaming”, “shrieking”, “squealing” or “crowing” better describe the quality of the roars by younger individuals. As elephants become larger roars takes on a more resonant “bellowing” or “roaring” quality.

Elephants in some form of distress emit most roars, with the vast majority being produced by infants, calves and juveniles begging for access to the breast, protesting unwanted or agonistic touching by another elephant, or separation from the mother. Adults roar when chased or tusked, when threatening predators, when chased by males during estrus, and most commonly, during highly exciting social events. The latter are more likely to occur as a rumble-roar-rumble.

Roars elicit the support or attention of others. For instance, roars by calves draw the attention of caretakers, those by an estrous female attract males, and those by a family member who has been tusked draw the immediate response and support of close associates.

Infants and calves under the age of five years may emit a cry or cry-rumble in situations where they are in some form of distress such as when denied access to the breast or when protesting unwanted contact by an older elephant. Cries are very short whimpering sounds lasting less than half a second in duration. Cries are typically followed by a rumble without an inhalation, and rarely a cry may be both preceded and followed by a rumble.

Barks are transient and primarily noisy calls that differ from noisy roars in their very short duration. Similar to the roarsbarks may be combined with a rumble producing a composite bark-rumble. In Amboseli barks and bark-rumbles were heard very infrequently, but occurred in contexts similar to roars by calves: in the context of begging and when elephants were tusked or pushed. A 10-year-old female produced a bark as she was mated for the first time.

The grunt was described in 2007 by Stoeger-Horwath as a soft, short, beeping or honking sound produced by infant elephants in the first days of life. She reports that in captivity infants cease producing grunts by two months of age. Grunts are barely audible and, therefore, difficult to hear and record in the wild. Some are associated with attempts to suckle.

The term husky refers to gruff or husky sounds produced only by newborn and infant elephants up to about four months of age. Husky-cries contain noisy harmonics similar in structure to some Rumbles yet their sound quality is dissimilar. Husky-cries range from barely audible breathy exhalations to surprisingly powerful hoarse, rasping sounds. They are usually made during moments of distress and are heard frequently during the first hours and days of life as the unstable infant struggles to remain standing, and as it is touched and fondled by family members. Each call brings a vocal response and additional fondling by mother and allomothers, which, in turn, elicits more vocalizing by the infant.

Infants may also emit a husky-cry when separated from their mothers and frightened by something, when touched and woken by their mothers, when engaged in rough play, or when frightened by a loud sound or if receiving rough treatment.


Corejosa and others from Gorongosa's C family trumpet-blast as they mob us. (©ElephantVoices)

Trunk calls are produced when an elephant sends an explosive exhalation of air through the trunk. Elephant can produce a wide variety of sounds this way.

Elephants often trumpet when they are highly stimulated - in situations where they may be fearful, surprised, aggressive, playful or socially excited.

Trumpets are produced by a forceful expulsion of air through the trunk and come in several forms. Trumpets are mainly tonal sounds, though harmonics are overlaid with noise. Most last less than a second (though extremely long trumpets may last over 3 seconds).

An elephant can produce a wide variety of sounds by varying the speed of air it forces through its trunk, by the shape in which it holds its trunk and by its own body posture and movement. Elephants tend to trumpet when they are highly stimulated - in situations where they may be fearful, surprised, aggressive, playful or socially excited - and the quality of trumpeting varies with the context.

Trumpeting is often associated with intensely social events such as a birth, mating or greeting ceremony, where group participation is important. In these situations trumpeting seems to function as a kind of "exclamation mark", expressing the very high level of excitement and importance of the event.

Nasal-trumpets sound like a large man blowing his nose. They are much noisier than trumpets, considerably lower in frequency and are almost invariably heard in the context of play, although intense social excitement may elicit nasal trumpeting, too.

Snorts are short, noisy, broadband sounds produced by blowing air purposefully through the trunk. Elephants may snort when they are surprised by something (these may simply be less explosive trumpets), during intense social excitement, or to alert other members of their group to a new situation.

Snorts are usually audibly distinguishable from the more common "blows" (blowing, sneezing, wheezing and coughing sounds) that appear to be made for the purpose of clearing the nasal passages; snorts sound sharper and more purposeful than a blow and may also be distinguished by context.

Eudora squelching. (©ElephantVoices)

Elephants produce a variety of novel sounds some of which are learned through imitation of other elephants or things in their environment. Sounds reported thus far include humming, squelching, croaking.

Imitation of trucks and the imitation by African elephants of Asian elephant chirps were documented by Poole et al in 2005 (Click to download, .pdf 296kb) and the imitation of whistling by Asian elephants was described in 1982 and 1985 by Wemmer & Mishna. An elephant imitating human speech has also been documented.

These unusual or idiosyncratic sounds are produced rarely and are, therefore, challenging to collect. We present a range of these calls here.

Studying elephants in captivity, in 2003 Leong and her colleagues first reported croaking as a pulsating sound lasting between 1 and 10 seconds. These sounds were produced by several different individuals and were often associated with the sucking of water or odors into the mouth and usually occurred in a series of two or three croaks.

In Amboseli, as far as we know, only two in a population of 1500 elephants emit this unusual sound, and both of them, Gail and Gwen, are adult females from the same family. For many years only Gail was heard to croak, but then Gwen began to croak. Unlike the observations by Leong and her colleagues, both Amboseli elephants appear to croak when they are relaxed and feeding, and croaking appears to have no communicative function. Gwen and Gail are sisters and close associates; we suggest that croaking is another example of vocal learning.

Occasionally elephants may be heard to make a "squelching" sound (something like when walking with water in wellington boots). The sound is apparently produced by forcing air through a "scrunched-up" trunk. Sometimes the individual squelching gives the impression of having a genuine itch in his or her trunk, but at other times production of this rather odd bubbling sound seems to be an end in itself.

Squelching is most often heard when elephants are relaxed, for example standing by the side of a waterhole, or waiting patiently for other family members to move.

In an article entitled, Elephants are capable of vocal learning, published in the journal, Nature, in 2005, Poole and her colleagues reported the imitations of truck sounds by a ten-year-old adolescent female African elephant, Malaika, who was living in a semi-captive group of orphaned elephants in Tsavo, Kenya. Trucks were sometimes audible from Malaika's night stockade which was situated some three kilometers from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

With a fundamental frequency hovering around 50 Hz (similar to trucks) and highly variable duration (range: 685 ms to almost 15 seconds) this sound is unlike any call in the normal repertoire of African elephants. Poole and her colleagues were able to show statistically that the elephant was imitating the noise of distant trucks. Since the publication of the 2005 paper additional elephants in the small Tsavo group of orphans learned to produce the same sound. (Click to download Poole et al. 2005. Elephants are capable of vocal learning, .pdf 296kb - NATURE|VOL 434 |24 MARCH 2005).

Chirping sounds are a typical vocalization of Asian elephants, though not of African elephants. In a 2005 paper entitled, Elephants are capable of vocal learning, published in the journal, Nature, Poole and colleagues reported that a 23-year-old African male, Calimero, had learned to imitate the chirping of Asian elephants. Calimero had spent 18 years of his life in the company of two female Asian elephants in the Basel Zoo in Switzerland and he seldom produced any other sounds.

People often express surprise to learn that elephants communicate with one another. Of course they can! How else can animals with strong individual personalities, living in a complex society, achieve anything? The purpose of this database, and the work that we have carried out over decades, is to share with you the voices of elephants, and through them the complexities of their daily life.

Little-Greeting - female greets Grace. (©ElephantVoices) One of the fundamental behavioural characteristics of elephants is their demonstrative nature. Expressions of what appear to be joy, anger, silliness, and outright indignation are all commonly seen. Elephants seem to revel in making a "big deal" about everything - they are the quinessential Drama Queens. For example, if one member of a family expresses umbrage, family and friends rush to her side to comment and concur and to provide emotional support and physical backup, if necessary.

Elephants communicate using calls associated with specific contexts

Elephants vocalize in a wide range of situations. They call to advertise physiological or hormonal state, to warn others and to threaten, to demonstrate strong emotions, to announce needs or desires, to propose, negotiate or discuss a plan of action, to coordinate group movement, to secure group defence, to care for calves, to solicit care or support, to reinforce bonds between family and friends, to reconcile differences, and to assert dominance. Elephants communicate with one another using a variety of call types and, within those, call sub-types or what we call "context-types."

This particular database describes the calls that elephants use in specific contexts (i.e. when mating, begging, protesting, playing etc) in other words, elephant call "context-types." Before you explore this database, you may want to familiarize yourself with the over-arching elephant call types here. You may also enjoy reading an article published on National Geographic online in April 2014 - "What Elephant Calls Mean: A Users Guide" - the result of a collaboration between ElephantVoices and National Geographic and information from this database.

Databases represent a large collection of elephant calls

This database together with the call type database represent a sample of our elephant call collection and are the result of many years of fieldwork, analysis and writing. It expands upon a body of work that appears as Poole, J.H. 2011. The behavioral contexts of African elephant acoustic communication. In: The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-Term Perspective on a Long-Lived Mammal. Moss, C.J. & Croze, H.J. (Eds.) University of Chicago Press. The book chapter is more technical and addresses statistical differences between the different call types and proposed context-types. For those of you interested in obtaining more detailed information about these results, or for obtaining access to calls for further analysis, please get in touch. We welcome collaboration.

The sounds on the database are the copyright of ElephantVoices. Low frequency infoIf you wish to use them commercially or otherwise, please contact us.

If you wish to cite this work please use: Poole, J and Granli, P. 2009. Database of African elephant acoustic communication, www.elephantvoices.org. To view the full structure for the database, click here.

A group advances in a bunched formation towards an external threat. (©ElephantVoices) Calls associated with anti-predator behavior include those used in the context of alerting companions to the presence of a predator, intimidating or "mobbing" a predator, as well as those used while taking defensive action. Family members produce several different call types when they confront predators or when they find themselves in potentially threatening or frightening situations. These include rumblessnortstrumpets, and roars. Much has been written about the complex and highly coordinated defensive and offensive behavior of elephants in the presence of predators, but the variety of calls produced, and the dramatic responses of other elephants to these calls has received little attention.

When exposed to the sound, sight and smell of lions, hyenas, humans, or other potentially dangerous predators or situations, females and calves typically respond by first Freezing, then rapid assembly (rapid walking or running toward one another) and then BunchingOnce elephants have assessed the level of danger presented, they may attack en masse or make a hasty retreat. Their particular response appears to be communicated, in part, via fine-tuned acoustic signaling.

When elephants are exposed to an unusual or disturbing situation, they respond with behavior that alerts other members of their family or group to the impending danger. A sudden lifting of the head and ears may be followed by Listening and/or Freezing behavior as well as sniffing toward the offending animal or object (See Attentive behavior in the Gestures Database for more information).

These behaviors may follow a sharp snort or snort-rumble by one individual as if alerting others to the presence of danger or something which requires attention. Immediately following a snort given in this context, a number of soft, medium length rumbles by one or more individuals may then be heard. The calls of several individuals may overlap. Elephants in the calling group stand alert, listening and looking, appearing to "comment on" or "call attention to" the unusual or disturbing event.

Alert elephants. (©ElephantVoices)

Alarming events that elicit soft rumbling and attentive behavior may include non-elephant disturbances such as unusual commotion in a vehicle, a helicopter passing overhead, the discovery of Maasai herdsmen in the area, or the roaring sounds of lions. Elephants may also give similar calling in a situation that is new, rather than frightening, such as the arrival of a known research vehicle.

Low frequency infoA disturbing, or exciting event among con-specifics (such as a fight between two musth males, or serious aggression directed at a family member) may also elicit this form of soft rumbling, as will playbacks of unexpected callers. We have referred to this form of rumbling as comment-rumbling, so called because elephants appear to use it to  "comment on" or "call attention to" the unusual or disturbing event.

Elephants confronting a predator can produce terrifyingly powerful sounds. (©ElephantVoices)An elephant confronting a dangerous predator can produce terrifyingly powerful sounds, which can literally put fear in the hearts of men! These calls include deafening noisy-roars, trumpet-blasts and powerful roaring-rumbles. Having Assembled and Bunched together with older individuals at the fore and calves occupying the center, one or more individuals may Advance-Toward or Charge the predator (see also Group-Charge) while emitting trumpet-blasts. 

The primary function of these calls is to intimidate, but they also function to call in reinforcements from other nearby family members. Confrontations with predators are also associated with softer-overlapping-rumbles during which the elephants reach out their trunks to touch one another in reassuring gestures (Reach-Touch).

Low frequency infoThroughout a confrontation with a dangerous predator bunched elephants may continue to vocalize with noisy, throaty, rolling rumbles, their heads raised, ears extended, temporal glands streaming and trunks reaching out to touch one another. These calls have the effect of both intimidating the predator and simultaneously calling in support from any more distant family members. We refer to the powerful noisy rumbles given in this context as roaring-rumbles.

When a group of elephants confronts a predator, or other perceived threat, an individual may Advance-Toward or Charge while emitting a powerful and sustained trumpet. Referred to as a trumpet-blast these sounds are intended to intimidate, and typically, Charges that are associated with them end abruptly. Yet, in our experience, it is not wise to assume that a trumpeting and charging elephant will not make good her threat!

When confronting dangerous predators, such as lions or humans, an elephant may produce a terrifyingly powerful roaring sound. These vocalizations have a very different quality and tone to roars associated with protest, distress or social events. Again, the primary purpose of these calls is to intimidate. Typically given at close range, they are very effective!

When calves suddenly find themselves separated from care-givers, they may make sounds created by a sudden exhalation of air. (©ElephantVoices)

Startled elephants make sounds associated with a sudden exhalation of air, which may take the form of a trumpet or a snort or something in between.

Elephants may also trumpet in fright or alarm. Such trumpeting is often associated with running and may, therefore, have a shrill, breathy quality. Calves who suddenly find themselves separated from care-givers may emit trumpets with this quality (see Mother-Offspring).

Elephants may also trumpet in fright or alarm. Such trumpeting is often associated with running and may, therefore, have a shrill, breathy quality. Calves who suddenly find themselves separated from care-givers may emit trumpets with this quality.

Elephant mating. (©ElephantVoices)

Adult male and female elephants live in two essentially different social systems. Elephants roam over large areas and both sexually active musth males and receptive, or estrous, females are confronted with the problem of finding and attracting suitable mates. While the musth periods of males may last weeks or months, females are receptive for only a few days. Males compete for access to receptive females who, in turn, choose the oldest and largest musth males to father their offspring. These older, higher ranking males are in short supply.

Male and female elephants locate potential mates through searching behavior, conspicuous postures (see Sexual in ElephantVoices Gestures database), the secretion of strong odors and loud and characteristic calling.

Among sexually inactive non-musth adult male elephants, relationships are "courteous". Whereas those who are sexually active, and particularly those in the heightened sexual period of musth, are combative and highly aggressive toward one another.

Iain and Dionysus battle over an estrous female. (©ElephantVoices)The reproductive success of males is strongly dependent upon longevity (how long a male survives). Older, larger males are dominant to younger, smaller males. Males in musth are highest ranking of all. Older males in musth are the most successful with peak breeding age occurring between 45-50 years old.

To survive to an age when a male can breed successfully requires that a male utilize all of the skills that he has learned and honed over decades. A male must learn to recognize a large number of individual males by their scent, appearance and voice; he must remember their strengths relative to his own; keep track of which individuals are in musth, where they are located and what condition they are in; and he must monitor the changing location of pre-estrus and estrus females. Musth males accomplish their monitoring by listening in for the calls of other males in musth and by calling and listening for the responses of females who answer the calls of musth males with a characteristic female-chorus. The particular calls made by musth males are known as musth-rumbles.

Elephant in musth - Ear-Waving. (©ElephantVoices) During the heightened sexual and aggressive period of musth, males produce a distinctive rumble with a characteristically pulsated "put-put-put" or "glug-glug-glug" quality, like water gurgling through a deep tunnel. This is known as a musth-rumble and it is associated with an increased rate of Urine-Dribbling and a particular ear posture known as an Ear-Wave.

Males tend to give musth-rumbles in rather specific contexts such as during aggressive interactions with other males, when they approach a group of females, when they are marking a tree with Temporal-Gland-Secretion, drinking, or wallowing, as well as in situations where they feel challenged.

For example, the sound of another musth male, an approaching vehicle or even an airplane overhead is often enough to trigger a musth male to rumble. Low frequency infoMusth males also frequently rumble before or after listening, when they are presumably responding to distant elephant calls or using calling to search for potential mates.

Musth-rumble by RBG
Example: Musth-rumble by RBG

Musth males most often rumble when they are alone, less often in the company of females and least often when they are guarding an estrous female. Since musth males often listen after they rumble, it's likely that they use musth-rumbles to advertise their heightened aggressive and sexual state to rival males and to potential mates. Females respond to the rumbles of musth males by vocalizing, so calling may help a male to locate groups of females. Once a male has located an estrous female he may have neither the need nor the desire to advertise his whereabouts!

The calls of individual males are distinctive. Some males produce short musth-rumbles, others are very long, some have a rolling quality while others are pulsated. The "typical" musth-rumble is a long, low, pulsated, tonal call with considerable overlaying noise.

Females have relatively short and infrequent receptive periods and they prefer older, higher ranking males in musth as mating partners, but these males are relatively scarce and often distant. Females show their preference for musth males by calling to them in unison, with a female-chorus, when a musth male joins their group. Female elephants prefer older mating partners. (©ElephantVoices)Receptive females use several strategies to search for and locate these preferred mates. They join large aggregations where they can more easily be found by searching musth males, they secrete characteristic odors and they exhibiting conspicuous behavior (see the Gestures database under sexual), including loud calling.

The calling of receptive females attracts the attention of all sexually active males, from which females can then choose the most favourable mate - a male who is high ranking and healthy (a male in peak musth) and has proved he can survive (an older male). Female elephants can outrun larger male elephants, and if mounted by a male she doesn't like she can dislodge him by not standing still.

Receptive females give a poweful estrous-roar, when they are being chased by a young male, thus attracting more competitors, and the intervention of higher ranking males. When an estrous female mates she calls repeatedly with a estrous-rumble or song, thus attracting even more competitors as she approaches the peak of her receptive period. Her family members join her song with their own powerful voices in a mating-pandemonium, thus enhancing their relatives potential to woo additional contestants.

Females rumble in excitement at the arrival of musth male, Gomer, in Amboseli. (©ElephantVoices)Female elephants respond to the arrival of a musth male with a series of modulated and typically overlapping, or "chorused" calls. Adult and juvenile females join in the rumbling chorus that may also include snortingtrumpeting and, occasionally, roaring.

Females may also female-chorus when a family member is tested by a musth male, in response to hearing a musth-rumble, and may even call upon locating the scent-trail of a musth male. When females call in this context they often urinate, defecate and secrete Temporin from their temporal glands. When females are highly excited, their chorused calls can include powerful and throaty rumbles. We refer to this pattern of calling as a female-chorus.

When a female comes into her receptive, or estrous, period, she may be pursued by a series of males, and she typically roars when she is chased by a non-musth male. The roar of an estrous female often begins as a series of short pulsated growling sounds before developing (or not) into a pulsated estrous-roar. This call has the effect of attracting distant males, or alerting her consort, or guarding musth male, who may be dozing or otherwise occupied.

Estrous females are more likely to roar in early and late estrus when they are chased by young, low-ranking non-musth males,  than during peak estrus. A female in peak estrus is typically in Consort (see Gestures database) with a high-ranking and closely Guarding musth male and, therefore, has less reason to call.

Low frequency infoWhen a female is mated, and immediately after her mate dismounts, she begins a series of distinctive rumbles that she repeats at  intervals, as if in song. These long, rolling rumbles start at relatively low frequencies, rise sharply and descend slowly, and may be repeated for up to 45 minutes.

After a mating. (©ElephantVoices)

Though typically emitted in association with a mating, females at peak estrus have been documented to call in this manner in the absence of a mating. We refer to this pattern of calling as a post-copulatory or estrous-rumble.

The time between each call in the song starts at around 1500 ms and increases with time after the mating. The female calls very powerfully at the beginning of her song, gradually diminishing in intensity over time. She may reach out repeatedly to touch her partner's penis, or his semen on the ground, calling with more vigor at each renewed sniff. Her calling is associated with loud, rhythmic ear flapping and copious secretion from her temporal glands.

Estrous-rumbles have the effect of attracting (often distant) males. 

Following a mating, relatives and associates join the estrous female in what we have termed a Mating-Pandemonium. The arrival and participation of the mated female's family increases her own level of excitement and calling. Mating-Pandemonium - a noisy spectacle. (©ElephantVoices)Adult females, juveniles and calves all participate, overlapping the distinctive estrous-rumbles of the mated female with powerful rumbles, trumpets, and roars of their own. True pandemonium exists: it is difficult to tell who is calling and whether the component calls can be classified as a particular context-type (though the estrous-rumbles stand out as distinctive, both audibly and structurally). Collectively, we refer to the chorus calling following a mating as a mating-pandemonium.

We refer to all trumpets and roars that occur during matings, greetings, births, and other highly social, excitable events as social-trumpets and social-roars (see Social Integration). While the social-trumpets do appear to be distinctive it may be the tempo of the repeated estrous-rumble is what distinguishes the event, rather than any detectable differences in the rumbling, trumpeting or roaring of the other participants.Low frequency info

It is notable that many of the rumbles made by females other than the mated female appear to be bimodal or multi-modal.

Young male trumpets during exuberant play. (©ElephantVoices)

Many of the vocalizations made in the context of a family group are those emitted during interactions between calves and their care-takers. Calves vocalize when begging for access to the breast, when denied access to a food source, when thwarted, frightened, or when they are soliciting assistance or support from their mothers or other care-givers.

Calf vocalizations in these contexts include almost all of the call types produced by African elephants: Rumbles, husky-cries, barks, grunts, cries, roars and trumpets.

Mothers and allomothers respond to these calls by coming to the physical aid of the calling calf and by rumbling. Calves rumble, in turn, in response to the care provided.

A broad range of call types may be heard in the context of a calf wanting to suckle. (©ElephantVoices)A broad range of call types may be heard in the context of a calf Soliciting-Suckling (see also Gestures database), or begging, and may include rumbles, cries, cry-rumbles, roars, roar-rumbles, barks, bark-rumbles and grunts.

These calls are typically made by calves ranging from newborn to four or five years old, although we have observed an eight year old juvenile successfully solicite suckling! After rumbling and making complaining calls for some time an older sister appeared to intervene on the juvenile's behalf - blocking her mother, Wartear's, path and rumbling loudly to her. Wartear then stopped and allowed the eight-year-old to suckle. The juvenile had to get down on her knees to access her mother's breasts!

An infant or calf typically initiates begging (Solicit-Suckling - see Gestures database) by tagging along its mother's side with its trunk raised and emitting one or a series of very soft, short rumbles characterized by an "rrrrmmmm" sound of descending pitch. Upon hearing her calf vocalizing in this manner a mother typically stops and put's her foreleg on the calf's side forward - allowing her calf access to her breast.

This behavior and it's associated calling is frequently observed in an elephant family with infants and calves. We refer to it as a begging-rumble. Begging-rumbles are typically flat or slightly descending in frequency, but about a third are modulated, rising slightly and then falling. Generally, elephants under the age of five years emit begging-rumbles.

Among free ranging elephants the vast majority of this type of rumbling is heard when calves are begging for access to the breast, although calves who are soliciting  a share of an item of food (e.g. heart of palm, Acacia branch), including from another's mouth, also use a begging-rumble. In captivity we have recorded these calls from orphaned elephants at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust at feeding time, whether food is a bottle of milk or coconut cakes.

Calf wanting to sucle. (©ElephantVoices)When a calf's begging-rumbles or grumbling-rumbles fail to induce its mother to stop and adopt a Suckling-Stance (see Gestures database) the calf may escalate it's begging to a higher-pitched cry, cry-rumble, roar, or roar-rumble.

Many of the best quality calls in our collection were recorded on foot among the elephant orphans in Tsavo, while being looked after by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Feeding time is frenzied with several calves pushing and shoving for access to the milk bottles and coconut cakes.

Most cry and cry-rumbles in the Low frequency infowild are made by begging calves, although calves may also cry when in mild distress. We assume at this stage that the cries or cry-rumbles made in both contexts are similar.

When a calf's begging-rumbles or grumbling-rumbles fail to induce its mother to stop and adopt a Suckling-Stance (see Gestures database) the calf may escalate it's begging to a higher pitched cry, cry-rumble, roar, or roar-rumble. The roars show a wide range of structural characteristics ranging from noisy to tonal. The sound quality of roars is highly variable - depending upon the age and emotional state of the individual - and might be described as squealing like a pig, screeching, roaring, shouting, yelling, crying, and even crowing like a rooster!

A calf's mother usually responds to the calls of a begging calf (see begging-rumble and also Solicit-Suckling in the Gestures database) by stopping and adopting a Suckling-Stance whereupon calling ceases and the calf begins to suckle. If she denies the calf access to her breast, begging continues and may escalate into a more modulated or undulating and more open-mouthed grumbling-rumble. The complaining tone of the grumbling-rumble is audibly detectable. 

Distressed elephants produce a wide range of calls. (©ElephantVoices)Young elephants when distressed produce a wide range of calls including rumbles, cries, cry-rumbles, roars, roar-rumbles, husky-cries, and trumpets. Distress can be defined broadly to include instances of being physically hurt (e.g. pushed, poked, kicked by another elephant), becoming "stuck" somewhere (e.g. as in a mud-wallow), becoming frightened or alarmed (e.g. separation from mother or family), or being thwarted (e.g. unable to access the breast or other resource). This latter category has been dealt with separately under the section Soliciting Suckling).

Within these broad call types the quality and tone range widely. To some extent the variety reflects the developmental stage of the elephant (e.g. infant, calf, juvenile or even adult adult - see Conflict), but the level of distress is also reflected in the type and tone of the call. In this section we look at those produced by calves.

When moderately distressed, infants produce husky-cries. These are among the first calls produced by newborn elephants and are commonly heard in a group with newly born calf. Family members rapidly come to the aid of the calling infant, touching it and rumbling softly to it (see coo-rumble). Husky-cries range from barely audible, low-intensity sounds to surprisingly powerful abrupt and gravelly sounds. We refer to the softer call as a low-intensity-husky-cry and the louder type as a high-intensity-husky-cry.

Calves and juveniles may cry when distressed and these calls elicit the support of other, older elephants. We do not have large enough sample sizes of these call types to know whether the cries given in the context of begging are different from those emitted by infants who are distressed for other reasons. At this stage we assume that they are not, although calls that are associated with higher levels of distress appear to be coupled with more noise.

Calves and juveniles may roar or roar-rumble when distressed and these calls elicit the support of older elephants. We do not have large enough sample sizes of these call types to know whether the roars given in the context of begging (see under the Solicit Suckling section) are different from those emitted by infants who are distressed for other reasons. At this stage we assume that they are not, although calls that are associated with higher levels of distress appear to feature more noise.

Infants, calves and juveniles of either sex emit a series of characteristic rumbles when they are separated from and searching for their mothers and/or families. The body postures of these youngsters (Head-Raising; Tail-Raising; Trunk-Curved-Under - see ElephantVoices Gestures Database) indicate that they feel insecure and frightened.

A calf who is separated typically begins by calling with a barely audible, often pulsated humming sounding rumble, "mm-mm-mm-mm". The calling calf then Freezes (see Gestures Database), standing with his head raised and ears spread, and Listens, presumably for an answer to his call, and then calls again. This pattern is repeated over and over, with the rumbling sometimes increasing in amplitude, until he locates his mother or other family member. A separated calf's typically rapid movement, as it searches for his family, is likely to be the cause of the pulsating quality of the call. We refer to calls of this quality, given in this context as separated-rumbles or lost-calls.

A calf or juvenile elephant who is separated from his or her family typically begins to call with a series of separated-rumbles. As a lost calf becomes increasingly distressed, the rumbling escalates to shrill trumpeting or roaring. We refer to trumpets emitted in this context as alarmed-trumpets as the separated calves' postures are typical of a fearful or alarmed elephant.

A calf or juvenile elephant who is separated from its family typically begins to call with a series of separated-rumbles. As a lost calf becomes increasingly distressed, the rumbling escalates to shrill trumpeting or roaring. The roars emitted by a lost calf are typically concatenated calls in the form of a roar-rumble or rumble-roar-rumble.

Mother and allomothers comfort an infant. (©ElephantVoices)

Elephant calves are constantly receiving the attention of their mothers and other caregivers, and acoustic and tactile communication between them helps to reinforce the bonds upon which their survival depends.

Elephant calves respond to reassurance and comfort given by adults and allomothers by emitting two rather similar sounding open-mouthed rumbles that we refer to as the as-touched-rumble and the baroo-rumble. Mothers and allo-mothers typically respond to these calls with coo-rumbles (See under Reassuring and calling calves). It is possible that these two calls are the same and only differ in intensity caused by the level of emotion experienced by the calf.

We have separated the calls based on whether the calf was simply being touched (as-touched-rumble) or whether the calf was being reassured after some negative experience or "injustice" (baroo-rumble)

When infants and calves are approached and/or touched in a caring way by an older member of its family, they may emit a soft, short, low-pitched rumble lasting about two seconds in duration. This rumble has an "aauurrrrr" quality and the infant or calf raises its head and lifts its ears as it is calling. We refer to calls given in this context as as-touched-rumbles.

The calling calf holds herself in a posture comparable that exhibited by older individuals in the context of little-greeting-rumbles (see under Social Integration in this and the Gestures Database) and the quality of the associated calls is also similar. Our guess is that the as-touched-rumble is a precursor to the little-greeting-rumble.

Similar to little-greeting-rumbles, calls given by calves in the context of receiving an affiliative gesture are highly variable, ranging from rather soft un-modulated tonal calls to loud, highly modulated and sometimes rather noisy calls. We believe that the difference is related to the intensity of emotions experienced by the calf. 


Infants and calves who are comforted by a family member after having suffered some "injustice" (e.g. been pushed, kicked, tusked, denied access to the breast) or experienced something frightening or distressing, typically emit a loud, open-mouthed rumble that is acoustically noisy and characteristically highly modulated "wooooaaaarrrrr" or "barooo" sound. We refer to this sound with its protesting tone as a baroo-rumble.

Soft, unmodulated, low-pitched calls is often used in a family group to reassure calves. (©ElephantVoices)

Calls by adult and juvenile females directed toward calves are one of the more frequently heard rumbles in a family group. These calls are, by and large, rather similar soft, low-pitched, unmodulated calls of medium duration.

The most common call is the coo-rumble, which appears to function to generally greet, comfort, reassure and bond with calves. We have hundreds of examples of these these rumbles. We also believe that females rumble to call calves to them. We do not, however, have enough recordings in this context to be sure.

Calf being reassured by cooing-rumble. (©ElephantVoices)There are two broad behavioral contexts in which adult and juvenile females rumble to a calf with whom they are in close proximity. One context is when they greet, touch, suckle or generally "coo over" a calf in the absence of an expression of distress by the calf. Such calling is most often directed toward infants, and is especially frequent when there is a newborn in the family. Juvenile females may also call in this manner when touch calves and when they encourage infants to Comfort-Suckle from them. Touching induces calves to rumble (see as-touched-rumble).

The other context is when adult or juvenile females reassure a calf following an event that has caused the calf to give some form of distress call. Husky-cries, begging-rumbles, separated-rumbles, baroo-rumbles, alarm-trumpets, cries and roars all elicit this type of calling by family members.

We refer to these calls collectively as cooing-rumbles or coo-rumbles.

Elephant are less likely to come into conflict over resources in habitats where food, water and minerals are both plentiful and relatively evenly distributed. We have recorded elephants in Amboseli, Tsavo, Maasai Mara, Laikipia and Gorongosa - all areas where basic resources have been fairly accessible to elephants and conflict relatively low. Yet, we have observed elephants in habitats where preferred food species, such as Acacias, are rare, scarce water is pumped by generator into a few pans, and where minerals are only available in a few widely-dispersed salt-licks. In these situations, conflict between elephants can be intense and vocalisations associated with agonistic behaviour more frequent. Furthermore, as human populations increase many elephants must compete for access to resources with humans and livestock as well as other elephants.  

Sparring between two young males escalates into aggression. (©ElephantVoices)Lack of, or diminishing, resources is only one source of conflict. Males threaten one another, and may even fight to the death, over musth status and access to receptive females. Young males hold sparring matches to gain experience and to test one another's strength, and such playful jousting occasionally turns aggressive. Teenage males, who have reached the same size as adult females, begin pushing their weight around, learning that they can pick on females who are older, yet smaller than themselves. This sort of behavior is not tolerated and may elicit an aggressive attack by a matriarch or by a coalition of females.

Then there are personalities to deal with. Some elephants just don't like one another. In a large aggregation, when many different families and clans come together, there are always limits to be tested and scores to be settled. Afterall, elephants live in a large society within a complex web of relationships built upon the juxtaposition of different personalities.

Aggressive behavior that is directed toward another elephant is associated with a wide range of postures and displays (see ElephantVoices Gestures Database), but while the victim is likely to protest vocally, the aggressor is less likely to call. Our recording work has been largely carried out in Amboseli where food, water and minerals were abundant and agonistic behavior was low. For these reasons we have rather few of these calls in our collection.

One female tusks another at the swamp edge. (©ElephantVoices)Among males, the most aggressive are those in the sexual and aggressive state of musth who, when threatening another individual, frequently do vocalize with a musth-rumble. Since these calls are a component of sexual advertizement, however, they have been included under the general context, Sexual, in the section on Male-Male Competition. Musth males, and other elephants, will also threaten other elephants as well as non-elephant objects (most often researchers!) with a Forward-Trunk-Swing (see Gestures Database) that is often associated with a loud exhalation of air or snort. This display is exaggerated among musth males and known as an aggressive-whoosh.

Female elephants do occasionally rumble during escalated aggression and calls may also be made in association with the formation of a coalition. Very often such calls are directed at non-family teenage males by large adult females who are attempting to curb their pushy, ungentlemanly behavior. Aggressive action is often associated with an audible Ear-Slap by the aggressor (see Gestures Database).

A female seriously threatening another elephant stretches her head forward and outward (Bow-Neck - see ElephantVoices Gestures Database) and, as she chases her opponent, her aggressive rumbling is associated with audible Ear-Slapping with Ear-Folding (see Gestures Database).Low frequency info

We do not have enough examples of calls recorded in this context to know whether calling associated with this type of behavior is a separate  context-type, but the specific behavior of the elephants when calling suggests an area for further research. For now, we refer to rumbles that are given by an aggressor in an agonistic encounter, threat-rumbles.

Low frequency infoElephants may threaten other elephants or non-elephant animals with a Forward-Trunk-Swing (see the Gestures Database), during which they typically exhale loudly. In similar circumstances musth males also toss their trunks in threat in a more exaggerated form that is associated with a loud "whooshing" sound. We refer to this sound as an Aggressive-Whoosh

Aggression among elephants most often leads to vocalizations. (©ElephantVoices)

Elephants on the receiving end of aggression from another elephant are likely to vocalize. Calls include rumbles, roars and even trumpets (see also the calls under the section Soliciting Care or Support under Mother-Offspring). 

These calls have a distinctly protesting, complaining tone.

As mentioned in the section on Soliciting Care under Mother-Offspring, in situations where a young elephant is in conflict with another, for example over access to food, or when one is pestering another, a calf may emit a rumble with a distinct "whining" tone. We refer to calls with this tone as grumbling-rumbles. In those calls of longer duration a very clear undulating or wavy pattern is distinguishable as frequencies rise and fall.

A number of grumbling-rumbles in our collection come from orphaned calves in Tsavo, from whom we recorded over the course of a few days. Orphans lack the specific care and protection that they would normally receive from their mothers, which probably explains the higher frequency of grumble-rumbles recorded from this group. At night, in their stockade, without the moderating influence of adults, the calves pestered one another (e.g. repeatedly touching or sucking on one another's ears, etc).

Low frequency infoGrumbling-Rumbles with their distinct undulating or wavy contour and whining tone, are also emitted by adults when apparently complaining about their treatment by others. Grumbling-rumbles vary between one and several undulations, resulting in a rather bimodal distribution of call duration, with the longer calls sounding distinctly complaining!

When an adult male is on the receiving end of a serious threat he may emit a sound similar in structure to a shorter grumbling-rumble. This very short, groaning-sounding rumble has the quality of an outboard or V-8 engine and we refer to it as a V-8-Rumble. It is possible that it is a grumbling-rumble and its deeper, more resonant sound is merely because it is produced by much larger individuals.

Low frequency infoAdult males may produce this sound in several specific circumstances including: when seriously threatened by a higher-ranking (often musth) individual at close range; when chased or lunged at by a higher ranking individual; during rough sparring matches and during rough play. This call appears to be produced only by males and seems to indicate submission; the attacker usually stops when his or her opponent has made this call.

Roars often attract the attention of other family members. (©ElephantVoices)

In an aggressive and/or competitive situation an elephant may roar when pushed, poked, tusked, chased or thwarted by another individual (see also Roars under Soliciting Care or Support under Mother-Offspring).

Such roars attract the attention of family members who may rush to the caller's aid either individually or as a coalition.

Roars may be longer and more pulsated if the calling elephant is being chased.

Following an aggressive interaction the elephant who has been chased or thwarted may shake his or her head vigorously in apparent "annoyance" and blow air through the trunk resulting in a trumpet or snort.

Fragment of a family group walks towards the rest of their family, Amboseli. (©ElephantVoices)Like many sexually dimorphic mammals, adult male and female elephants live in very different social worlds. Fluctuating sexual cycles distinguish the dynamic activities, associations and relationships of adult males, while a complex network of bonds between individuals and families characterizes the lives of females and their offspring.

Elephants families are composed of a discrete, predictable composition of individuals, but over the course of hours or days, these groups may temporarily separate and reunite or they may mingle with other individuals and groups to form larger social units.

In addition to exhibiting a high frequency of association over time, members of an elephant family display strong affiliative behavior (see under Bonding in this section), including a pattern of greeting behaviors and bonding ceremonies, and show highly cooperative behavior during group defense (see Group Defense), offspring care (see Mother-Offspring), and decision-making (see Logistical under this section).

Members of an elephant family appear to delight in one another's company. The apparent joy that elephants feel when they reunite guides a response that's necessary for their survival: Calves born into large, closely-knit families have a better chance of survival than those born into smaller families; large families with older matriarchs have high reproductive success, are dominant and are leaders in their society. The strong and positive emotional responses between adult females help to build and reinforce the bonds between them.Gorongosa elephants bonding. (©ElephantVoices)

The frequent greeting exchanges that occur between family members during the course of a day, and the more intense greetings that occur when members of a family reunite, are among the many ways in which elephants express their friendship and loyalty toward one another and renew the support network that is so important to their survival.

Elephant calls involved in bonding behavior include rumblesroars, trumpets, and snorts and range from soft and simple little-greeting-rumble exchanges to the powerful rumbles, roars and trumpets associated with elephant greeting-ceremonies.

A relatively frequent event in an elephant family is one in which an exchange of rumbles occurs when an elephant (usually older and female) approaches another (usually in parallel and from behind). Typically the approaching elephant emits a soft relatively short rumble to which the elephant being approached responds by Head-Raising, Ear-Lifting and sometimes Backing-Towards (see ElephantVoices Gestures database) the approaching elephant and emitting a rumble of medium duration and moderate intensity (although these are highly variable). These rumbles are usually associated with the secretion of Temporin.

Examination of spectrograms indicates that in almost every case both the approaching and approached elephant call (although the softer call of the former may be drowned out by the more powerful call of the latter) and their rumbles overlap. In some cases nearby elephants may also join in. Elephants may also call in this manner when one approaches another face to face, although this pattern is less common.

The keepers who looked after the Tsavo orphans were able to elicit the same type of answer rumbles from the orphaned calves by individually calling out their names. Members of an elephant family appear to use this common vocal exchange as a way of saying something like "hello, its good to be near you again" or, perhaps, "you are important to me". We refer to calls given in this context as little-greeting-rumbles.

Little-greeting-rumbles may occur between any member of an elephant family, including between two males, but they are most commonly heard between females. Little-greetings occur more often between mother-daughter, sister-sister, grandmother-granddaughter pairs than expected by chance, and less often between aunt-niece, great-grandmother-great-granddaughter or pairs who were second cousins. Yet, some exchanges aunt-niece pairs show a high frequency of little-greeting-rumble exchanges. In each case these are pairs in which the niece was an infant prior to the aunt having her first calf, and the aunt was the most likely candidate in the family for taking the role of allomother. Calves and their caretakers (often sisters and aunts) emit coo-rumble/as-touched-rumbles exchanges under rather similar circumstances to little-greeting-rumble exchanges and we believe that these calls probably develop into the little-greeting-rumble exchange relationship.

Low frequency infoWe venture to propose that the relationships established through early vocal and tactile care-giving by mothers, sisters and other allomothers form the basis of close bonds observed as adults which are then strengthened and reinforced through the customary little-greetings between closely bonded pairs.

When members of a social group come together after a period of more prolonged separation, they approach one another face to face and, as calling begins, they turn or "pirouette" to stand in parallel while Head-Raising, Ear-Lifting, and streaming with Temporin. Audible Rapid-Ear-Flapping may be heard as calling explodes with a burst of powerful, throaty, highly modulated and overlapping rumbles that we refer to as greeting-rumbles. After the initiate explosive greeting, an exchange of lower intensity and less modulated rumbles continues as the greeting proceeds. 

When individuals belonging to a family or bond-group come together after a period of prolonged separation - perhaps hours, days, or weeks- their reunion may be pandemonium. Famiy members typically approach one another face to face and, as calling begins, they turn, "pirouette" to stand in parallel while Head-Raising, Ear-Lifting, and streaming with Temporin (see Gestures Database). Audible Rapid-Ear-Flapping may be heard as calling explodes with a burst of powerful, throaty, highly modulated and overlapping greeting-rumbles (see greeting-rumbles under this section). 

The longer the separation and the closer the relationship between the calling individuals the more intense the greeting is likely to be. A simple greeting between two individuals typically involves a few overlapping greeting-rumbles, while the reunion of two closely bonded families may involve up to 50 or more elephants and last for up to five minutes.

During more intense greeting-ceremonies females may exhibit any or all of the following behaviors (see Gestures Database): Head-Raising, Ear-Lifting, Rapid-Ear-Flapping, Mouth-Opening, profuse secretion of Temporin, Urination, Defecation, Spinning, Tusk-Clicking, Open-Mouth-toOpen-Mouth, Reciprocal-Trunk-to-Mouth, High-Fiving. Associated with these intense greeting behaviors and greeting-rumbles are social-trumpets and social-roars (see under this section).

Prior to an elephant Greeting-Ceremony, rumbling may be heard back and forth between two converging groups. These initial calls sound like, and may be better classified as, contact-calls (see under Logistical calls). As the groups converge, greeting-rumbles typically begin with a series of powerful, highly modulated and overlapping rumbles, giving way to softer, less modulated rumbles that may continue for some minutes (see below). These softer rumbles are structurally quite different from the initial intense greeting-rumbles.

The more intense initial rumbles vary enormously, although they all show some degree of modulation in frequency and are of medium to long duration. Unfortunately, these calls are difficult to measure because the calls of so many individuals overlap. Within a single greeting-ceremony, arched, skewed, arched with a wiggly contour, bimodal, bimodal and skewed, and multi-modal rumbles occur.

During intense greeting-ceremonies elephants reach their trunks out toward, or to touch, other individuals and may put their trunks into one another's mouths. While the variability in calling may simply reflect the intensity of excitement, it may, alternatively, reveal additional information, such as a caller's signature or perhaps even reference to specific individuals.

What is the functional explanation for this remarkable cacophony of sound and scent? Could greeting-ceremonies serve to announce to distant elephants that the unit is once again a force to be reckoned with? Or do greeting-ceremonies express the deep sense of joy elephants feel at being reunited with friends - something like: "Wow! It's simply fantastic to be with you again!" 

Many of the visual and tactile behaviors (and perhaps the vocalizations) that occur during a greeting-ceremony are also seen in a wide variety of other situations such as during reconciliations, after the rescue of a calf, following a mating (known as a mating-pandemonium). It may be that in these very similar displays elephants are a show of solidarity, a reinforcement of important bonds and that all of these circumstance could, instead be labelled bonding-ceremonies (see this section).

Elephants are highly expressive, demonstrative animals, and they vocalize loudly and in chorus under a wide variety of different circumstances. Behavior similar to the greeting-ceremony may occur following the birth of an elephant, a mating (mating-pandemonium), the rescue of a calf, an aggressive interaction with another group, when the group has been threatened, or when close associates are reunited.

In all of these cases a series of powerful, overlapping, rumbles with a wide variety of contours, interspersed with trumpets and roars, may be heard. It may be more appropriate to term these collectively as "Bonding-Ceremonies."

This powerful chorus calling may signal to participants, and to more distant listeners, that the callers are members of a supportive unit, and that together they form a united front. Similar to social grooming in primates, bonding-ceremonies reinforce bonds between individuals whose loyalty and support are needed to ensure individuals survival and well-being.

Within the context of a Bonding-Ceremony, trumpeting by individuals overlaps with the lower frequency rumbling produced by other elephants. We refer to trumpets produced during these excited bonding events as social-trumpets. Structurally, these trumpets are not significantly different from harmonic-play-trumpets although they are significantly different from the other trumpet context-types.

Trumpets emitted in a social context function, in effect, as a form of exclamation mark, defining the level of significance of an event. While the type of rumbling may indicate of the type of event (e.g. mating, greeting, conflict), we propose that the frequency, and perhaps even the placement, of trumpeting may be an indication of the level of excitement and "importance" that the elephants collectively confer on an event. In a sense, the use of trumpets might be viewed as a simple form of syntax qualifying the sequence of calls, although more research is clearly needed.

During moments of peak social excitement female adult, juvenile and even calves may emit powerful roars. Such roars are typically noisy-roars combined with a rumble, characteristically being in the form rumble-noisy-roar-rumble. Similar to social-trumpetsroaring appears to signify the emotional intensity of an event.

We suspect that additional data may well reveal these roars to be different from roars emitted during distress.

Elephants live in a complex society that is remarkable for its fluidity, on the one hand, and its close and enduring social relationships on the other. Relationships between elephants are particularly complex because individuals interact with many others from different social units across a population, and cooperative social partners may not always be together in the same group. In fact, members of the same family are frequently kilometers apart, and much of a family's daily activity may be focused on calling to, and listening in for the answers of, close associates or, alternatively, circumventing individuals they wish to avoid. Elephants communicate with distant members of their family by contact-calling.

Qola proposes a plan of action. (©ElephantVoices)Although the Amboseli elephant population is relatively small (in 2014 numbering about 1,400), it is, nevertheless, a big society. A female elephant in Amboseli may seek the company of and/or purposefully avoid literally hundreds of other individuals in the course of her daily range. She is able to accomplish this through her ability to distinguish the voices of genuine strangers from a wide range of more regular associates and family.

Day-to-day decision-making, for instance, deciding when and where to go, involves vocal proposals such as the "let's go" rumble and often the building of consensus through cadenced-rumble exchanges that may last up to an hour. These complex negotiations of elephants are extremely exciting and certainly deserve more research.

Elephants use powerful, throaty, modulated rumbles at sound pressure levels of up to 115 dB to keep in audible contact with one another over distances of 1-2 km. These vocalizations are referred to as contact-calls.

contact-call sequence may include several rumbles: A caller's initial rumble is associated with rhythmic ear flapping and is followed by Listening behavior: the caller's head is held in an attentive lifted position with ears cocked as if waiting for a response, as if querying, "I am here, where are you?" An answering elephant typically responds with an unexpected (because the initial caller is often distant and the rumble often inaudible to human listeners), explosive rumble that is preceded by an abrupt lifting of the head as if Listening, her response seemingly stating, "I am over here." The initial caller, upon hearing an answer, may respond with another call, often associated with a more relaxed posture, as if sending confirmation that an answer has been received. Nearby family members may also add their voice(s) to the second or third phase of the sequence, and calling back and forth may continue intermittently over hours until the callers meet again.

Separated by long distances, elephants contact-call at high sound pressure levels, but, as might be expected, elephants also call back and forth to one another over shorter distances at lower sound pressure levels. Adult females, juveniles and calves all use contact-calls. As far as we are aware adult males do not use the powerful long-distance version, but we would not be surprised to hear that adult males in tightly bonded groups do.

Most contact-calls last between 4 and 6.5 seconds and are modulated in frequency contour, typically rising sharply and falling more gradually (skewed left). There exists a wide range of variation in the contours of contact-calls, howeverthat may be related to whether the individual is the initial caller or the one answeringIn 2002 McComb showed that the contact-calls of individuals are structurally distinct and audibly identifiable to other elephants. In other words, contact-calls contain an acoustic signature. It is possible that considerable additional information is contained in the different variations of the calls, perhaps related excitement level of the callers, their inter-individual distance, the sequential arrangement (i.e. call, answer, confirmation), or to logistical or locational information. Future research may answer some of these questions.

An elephant indicates that she wishes to depart by calling, by exhibiting intention movements, and by pointing in the direction she wishes to travel using the axis of her body. Standing intently at edge of her group, facing in the direction she wishes to travel, she emits, with slow, rhythmic ear flapping, a moderately loud, low-pitched, long, relatively flat rumble.

The calling elephant repeats her "Let's go," appeal once every minute or so, sometimes calling for periods of up to half an hour, as she tries to persuade others to depart. She may gain the support of other individuals who join in her calling, but typically this is a solo call that we refer to as the "let's go"-rumble. The "let's go" is, in essence, a proposal: "I want to go this direction, let's go together." It is audibly distinguishable from most other elephant rumbles due to its characteristic long drawn-out quality and the posture of the calling elephant, but it can be confused in the field with the cadenced-rumble (see Logistical section).

The "let's go" rumble is one of the more commonly heard sounds among a family of elephants. There is a tendency for older females to produce this call more frequently than younger females, though less commonly juvenile and adult males may be heard to call. While matriarchs may propose a plan of action using the "let's go" rumble, very often they simply move off without making any obvious audible suggestion, except perhaps a Flap-Slide motion with her ears (indicating a change of activity), presumably expecting (or at least hoping) others to follow without discussion! This is certainly not always the case, and many a "disagreement" and "discussion" takes place regarding plans of action in an elephant family.

Not uncommonly vocal exchanges between related adult females may be heard that have the cadence of a conversation, rising and falling, as first one individual and then another contributes her voice. Other females may join the initiating individuals in a sequence of low-pitched, moderate intensity, relatively flat, long rumbles. This pattern of rumbling is most often heard as a series of very slightly overlapping or closely adjacent calls interchanged over the course of several minutes up to an hour.

The patterning of vocal exchange has such a cadence of conversation (in particular what sounds like a higher pitch/lower pitch exchange) that we refer to this as a cadenced-rumble. Adult females appear to use cadenced-rumbles to "lend their voice to" a proposed plan of action, usually, it seems, regarding where to go and when to depart. This call is similar in structure to the "let's go", but unlike the "let's go", we have been unable to detect any particular axis of the body that would indicate directionality. In fact, the call is unusual in that the vocalizing females continue to feed (or whatever activity they were engaged in) without looking up or showing any particularly attentive behavior. We have heard elephants from age four and upwards (including juvenile, though not adult, males) participate, in such bouts of calling.

While cadenced-rumbles sometimes appear to start "spontaneously," they are more often associated with another event such as: group departure, a group member proposing departure, a group member making contact from a distance, a group member rejoining the group, or the reinforcing of bonds.

Cadenced-rumbles are often heard following a series of "let's go" calls and a series cadenced-rumbles may contain calls that are difficult to distinguish from "let's go" rumbles. This may be because there are "let's go" rumbles interspersed among the other calls or because they are one and the same call. Much additional research is needed to clarify the temporal pattern and usage of these calls, but from the behavior of the elephants the cadenced-rumble appears to represent a complex level of consensus building and negotiation between family members.

It appears as if one individual proposes a course of action (using the let's go-rumble, for example) and then a period of negotiation and consensus building follows ending in either concordance or disagreement. Agreement is sometimes evident when individuals gather together rumbling with heads raised and touching.

In the context of play, calves, juveniles and adults of both sexes produce a variety of trumpets. The majority of these are shrill harmonic sounds; others are distinctly nasal, while still others are pulsated. All trumpeting by elephants is associated Elephants Floppy-Running. (©ElephantVoices)with a high level of excitement whether emitted during exuberant play, stimulating social events, or threatening, frightening or startling situations. Yet, trumpets are different enough that just by hearing one it is possible to make a fairly accurate assessment of the context in which it occurs.

In the context of play it has been our impression that elephants may be imitating the form of trumpet made by nearby playmates, as there is a tendency for nasal-play-trumpets to be temporally associated with other nasal-play-trumpets and pulsated-play-trumpets to be associated with pulsated-play-trumpets. Additional data will be required, however, to determine whether elephants are using vocal imitation in play.

Young male trumpets during exuberant play. (©ElephantVoices)Trumpeting is associated with lively play. Elephant are likely to trumpet during social, object and lone locomotor play - so long as the play is exuberant.

Harmonic-play-trumpets are typically short high-pitched, high intensity sounds associated with lone locomotor and social play. Some harmonic-play-trumpets have a flatter reverberating sound almost like a loud nose-blow and spectrographically these show more noise. Elephants of both sexes and all ages also produce a shortened form of play trumpet referred to by Berg (1983) as a trump.

Amboseli elephant trumpet loudly - mock-charge-play-trumpet. (©ElephantVoices)Similar to the harmonic-play-trumpet, but exhibiting a more prolonged and resolute quality is a trumpet that is associated with Mock-Charging behavior.

Cavorting elephants often chase other species in their environment (such as rabbits, hyenas, wildebeests, monkeys) during which they trumpet loudly.

We term trumpets associated with this form of play, mock-charge-play-trumpets. These trumpets are significantly longer in duration than harmonic-play-trumpets.

Highly spirited play is characterized by Floppy-Running behavior (see Gestures database) and trumpeting that is expelled in a sequence of breathy pulses as the elephant moves at a fast gait. We refer to this trumpet as a pulsated-play-trumpet.Pulsated-play-trumpets are significantly longer in duration and more modulated in frequency contour than the harmonic-play-trumpet.

As play escalates a fourth form of trumpet may be heard which, as air is forced slowly through the upper part of the nasal passages and reverberates down the length of the trunk, sounds like a large man blowing his nose. These trumpets are noisier and significantly lower in frequency than all other trumpets and are referred to as nasal-play-trumpets.

Typical Ear-Folding. (©ElephantVoices) Welcome to the Elephant Gestures Database©. This revised version of Poole and Granli, 2003 was published in April 2009. We will continue to update and fine-tune the database over the years, and a major expansion will take place during 2017/18. We hope that you will visit again. 

We are happy for any use of the database toward the better understanding, conservation and welfare of elephants. Please cite the database as "Poole, J.H. & Granli, P.K. 2009. ElephantVoices Gestures Database, http://www.elephantvoices.org, or, where appropriate, to the original source material as referenced.

You will find background information about the database here, and the full reference list here.

If you have comments or suggestions, mail us! To view the full sitemap for the database, click here.

Below you will find our answers to some of the many questions that are raised about the well being of elephants in captivity and in the wild.

The foundation for our expertise is decades of research and observations on the behavior of elephants under a broad range of situations in the wild - together with increasing experience with elephants in captivity. Some of our answers are based on empirical evidence, while others are personal reflections and opinions, emerging from our knowledge and ethical standpoint combined. Against the background of a rapidly changing scientific milieu, one’s perspective on animals and their welfare ultimately comes down to one’s own particular moral stand, one’s values, experiences and beliefs.

We have tried to be short on a very difficult and sensitive subject. In doing so we will have undoubtedly left out important justifications for our conclusions – but you can find numerous scientific papers and online sources, if you want to know more. This Elephant Interests section on ElephantVoices is among these. The book "The Elephant In the Room: The Science and Well-being of Elephants in Captivity" and our chapter Poole, J & Granli, P. 2008. Mind and Movement: Meeting the Interests of Elephants. (2.19 MB) is another source.

We cannot know for certain what an elephant, captive or wild, is thinking about her or his situation – just as we cannot know, for certain, what goes on in the minds of other people. We rely on people to tell us and we read their facial expressions and body postures. Through experience and observing patterns of behavior, we become very good at reading human body language. Similarly, through years of watching elephants, we have become extremely good at reading the body language and predicting the behavior of elephants. And, we do believe that the FAQ below will give you a pretty good insight in what captive elephants may be experiencing.

You are welcome to send us your own question(s), and we will try to include good questions of general interest in future updates of the captive elephant FAQ! You can search on any word within the questions and answers below, and thereby find questions related to zoo's, circuses, etc.

Here we have compiled answers to some of the many questions that we receive about elephant communication.

You can search on any word located in the questions or answers and, thereby, read more about various topics and issues you may be interested in.

You are also welcome to send us your own question(s) and, in future updates of the communication FAQ, we will try to answer those that we think are of general interest!