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How can you tell when an elephant is listening?

To study elephant communication it is crucial to understand the body language of elephants - for these are clues to what might happen next. Petter and I are pretty good at anticipating what elephants are about to do and have built up a database where you can learn all about the signals, postures and gestures of elephants. We are currently updating this database so you may want to keep an eye out for new additions.

One of many important cues we use is watching for listening behavior. Since elephants can communicate over long distances, and since some of their communication is inaudible to us (but audible to the elephants), this behavior is a cue that the listening elephant has heard something, or someone, and might call in answer. So what are the cues we use to tell that an elephant is listening?

An elephant rarely stands stock still except when listening or resting; usually some part of the body, ears, trunk, tail is in motion. A resting elephant relaxes it’s head and ears allowing its head to hang below its shoulders and its ears to flop forward. A listening elephant, on the other hand, stands with its head raised and its ears lifted and slightly extended. The body and extremities of a listening elephant suddenly stop moving, and it simultaneously raises its head and stiffens its ears. Sometimes an elephant may turn its head from side to side in an attempt to localize a sound.

Have a look at these photographs of listening elephants.

A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound of interest. (©ElephantVoices)
Three-Holes listens.

A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound of interest. (©ElephantVoices)
A juvenile female and two calves raise their heads suddenly as they hear a sound
of interest.

Beckwith listens after calling to her family. (©ElephantVoices)
Beckwith listens after calling to her family.

An adult female listens, and turns her head from side to side attempting to localize a distant call. (©ElephantVoices)
An adult female listens, and turns her head from side to side attempting to localize
a distant call. Listen to the sound linked below. To be connected to a sound system,
or the use of headphones, will make a huge difference! You will hear a distant
elephant calling, followed by an answer from the listening female.
{play}audio/c2303515_contact_call_ Erin1_48.mp3{/play}

Musth male, Solonga, listens in for the sounds of distant females in his search for mates. (©ElephantVoices)
Musth male, Solonga, listens in for the sounds of distant females in his search
for mates.

Trumpets, Joyce