Some of you have seen the responses (online or in person) of Ruby, Maggie, Mara and Lulu to some elephant sounds that I played to them when Petter and I visited Ark2000 on 15 November for a joint fundraiser for PAWS and ElephantVoices. Their responses were so strong that some people have been concerned that the sounds were upsetting to the girls.

I want to take a moment here to address that concern. Over the years we have been approached a few times by people who have wanted to use some of the calls in our collection as enrichment for elephants in zoos. I have been reluctant to allow our recordings for this purpose because I have felt that people who didn’t understand the calls or the responses of the elephants to them could misuse them. I also feel that elephants are smart enough to figure out pretty quickly that the sounds are just a ploy – that there aren’t any real elephant out there to be companions - and then playing them is just unkind.

The situation at PAWS was different because I was there, able to monitor the elephants, along with Pat, Ed, and all the others who work with these individuals and know their behavior and responses so well. Also, having watched these elephants in the past, I knew I was dealing with individuals who were relaxed and well integrated and, in particular, were elephants who had one another’s companionship and support to rely on.

Joyce playing sounds for PAWS elephants. (©ElephantVoices)

Petter and I played several sounds to the PAWS elephants. The first was a musth rumble (made only by sexually active males), followed by a mating pandemonium (the excitement that follows a mating), and then a sequence in which a calf screamed (because a lion jumped on it) which was immediately followed by the angry sounds of mother elephants threatening the lion and calling in members of their family for support.

So how did Ruby, Maggie, Mara and Lulu respond to these sounds?

When the musth rumble was played:
Maggie and Mara were near fence and were very relaxed until the sound is played. They lifted their heads, Mara folded her ears (a threat) and they first ran away (they were taken by surprise by a sound nearby that they didn’t expect) and then Mara turned toward the speaker. She whirled and trumpeted with excitement (Not with fear) and they all ran together, spun around, trumpeted and rumbled (throaty and modulated sound – typical excited rumble) and then some of the elephants urinated. This is typical of a high level excited response of females to the sound of a musth rumble in the wild. The manner in which they spun around together showed how bonded they are.

When the mating pandemonium was played:
The four elephants were some distance off. They listened to the sounds of many elephants and appeared not sure what to do. They started to walk away, then stopped. Ruby was in the front and was contemplating what to do. She turned her head from one side to the other trying to localize/ understand the source of the sound. She appeared unsure of what to do.

When the scream and antipredator rumbles were played:
As soon as the calf screamed, Ruby paid attention. As the mother elephants began their loud roaring rumbles, Ruby came forward and then charged uphill toward the sound and stood tall (aggressive) near the fence. Then she ran back to the other elephants and backed into them. They trumpeted and bunch in a defensive formation. Ruby charged uphill again and gave a trumpet blast – as might be given toward a predator. All the elephants moved away in a bunched formation. They held their heads high with their trunks curled under in an apprehensive posture.

The elephants heard a calf in danger and the sounds of other elephants threatening a predator and calling for help. They responded just as they would in the wild – with alarm and then with anger. Ruby showed real leadership - she acted like a mother and a matriarch in the situation and came to the defence of the group – exactly the kind of response that one would expect to see in the wild.

While it may be rare for captive elephants to react so strongly to a stimulus, the responses were very typical of wild elephants and we were able to observe a range of reactions from high-level social excitement to fierce defence. In the wild when we do playback experiments we hope for reactions like this. I have many videos of elephants running from sounds, bunching, charging and some in which they do not respond with more than listening behavior. Playbacks are a tool for learning what these sounds mean.

The elephants’ responses showed just what a strong leader Ruby (from LA Zoo) has becomes and how tight the bonds are between the four elephants. PAWS can be extremely proud of the work they have done to facilitate the development of this family unit.

Trumpets, Joyce