Expressive elephants use gestures and vocal signals to communicate

Communication is more than just verbal signals. It's also looks and gestures, and many primates, including humans, use gestures to convey their message. Similarly, African elephants (Loxodonta africana) may change their greetings depending on whether the other elephant is looking at them. The gentle giants also use various combinations of gestures and vocalizations to convey their points of view, which are described in a study published May 9 in the journal Communication Biology.

[Related: These birds appear to be signaling ‘after you’ ]

“If we ask someone to hand us the cup, we can point to a specific cup to help him understand which one we want,” Vesta Eleuterisays co-author and behavioral biologist at the University of Vienna in Austria PopSci. “Or, if we are being sarcastic, we can use facial expressions, use a specific tone of voice, or use specific gestures to indicate that we are not being completely serious.”

To see how elephants use similar combinations of gestures and sounds, Eleuteri and her team studied the greetings of semi-captive African savanna elephants living in Zimbabwe's Jafuta Reserve. The team will be operating from November to December 2021 observed 1,014 physical actions and 268 vocalizations used when greeting other elephants.

The scientists discovered that the elephants greeted each other specific combinations of vocalizations and gestures, such as rumbling with ear flapping or ear spreading. They also saw apparently less intentional physical movements, including tail raising and wagging. A combination of rumbling and ear clapping was the most common form of greeting, but it was used more often between women than between men. Urination, defecation and secretion from a sweat gland unique to elephants known as the temporary gland was also present in 71 percent of greetings.

[Related: Sperm whales may have their own ‘alphabet.’]

“Hearing and smell are very important senses for elephants and have therefore been extensively studied, while there is a general belief that elephants do not rely much on their eyesight,” says Eleuteri. “Our research provides evidence that elephants gesture correctly to each other during the ride

greeting, as well as the first systematic description of the different types of gestures used and how they combine them with calls during the greeting.”

The methods of communication varied depending on whether the subject of the greeting was looking at them. The elephants were more likely to use visual gestures such as spreading their ears, reaching their trunk or waving their trunk when they were being watched. Sounds such as flapping their ears or touching the recipient of their greeting with their trunk were used when they were not being watched.

Evolution photo

According to Eleuteri, some observations seemed chaotic at first glance; the elephants actually combined calls and physical actions into an ordered structure. It could shed some light on the possible grammatical skills of elephants.

These findings suggest that elephants deliberately change their communication depending on whether or not they have an individual's visual attention. They can also promote individual recognition and social bonding among the elephants.

[Related: Artificial intelligence is helping scientists decode animal languages.]

The study also adds insight into how more versatile communication systems evolved in different mammals. Chimpanzees and other monkeys It has also been observed that the gestures change depending on whether they are being looked at or not combine vocalizations and gestures in specific ways. Although both species are distantly related, elephants and chimpanzees share complex societies and advanced intelligence. These communication traits may have evolved independently in some primates and elephants.

In future studies, the team hopes to see how flexible the elephants are with their gestures. They also want to understand how many different types of movements wild elephants use and possibly what they mean.

“Maybe they say, 'come here,' 'go away!' or maybe even 'smell me,'” says Eleuteri.

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