Study explores elephant greetings and how they change based on social relationships


(NEW YORK) — How do elephants say hello?

As it happens, researchers are learning more about how the animals greet each other, and how relationships among the social species could impact that communication.

African elephants use different combinations of gestures and vocalizations in their greetings, such as ear-flapping and vocalizations – behavior that may promote individual recognition and social bonding, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology.

The study, which monitored the vocalizations and physical actions of nine semi-captive elephants living in a savannah within the Jafuta Reserve in Zimbabwe, also found that the elephants may change how they greet one another depending upon whether the other elephant is looking at them.

When being watched by other elephants, they were more likely to use visual gestures to communicate – such as ear-spreading, trunk-reaching, or trunk-swinging, the researchers found. When not being watched, elephants were more likely to touch the recipient of their greeting with their trunk, or to use gestures that produce a sound, such as ear-flapping and slapping their ears against their neck.

“If you’re not looking at me, I might use a tactile gesture. I might touch you to tell you something,” Vesta Eleuteri, a University of Vienna researcher who studies African savannah elephant communication and the lead author of the study, told ABC News.

When studying elephant social groups, the human observer can often ascertain the relationships among the elephants based on how they greet each other, Eleuteri said. These relationships can include females with their offspring, and even two different families that have formed a bond group, she said.

“Often when they meet each other, they’re so excited that they rumble, trumpet, roar, and they just all bunch together to strengthen this relationship,” Eleuteri said.

Males, on the other hand, tend to use more “investigative” greetings, such has directing their trunk to the mouth, or to the temporal glands of other males, located midway between their eye and ear, to cautiously mediate their reunion, Eleuteri said.

“It’s more risky between males because of the higher competition,” she noted.

Between November and December 2021, the researchers observed 89 elephant greeting events consisting of 1,282 greeting behaviors, 1,014 of which were physical actions and the remainder of which were vocalizations, according to the paper.

The observations revealed that elephants greeted one another with specific combinations of vocalizations and gestures, such as rumbles with ear-flapping or ear-spreading, as well as other seemingly less deliberate physical movements, such as tail-raising and waggling, according to the study.

While previous research has reported that elephants often engage in greeting rituals involving vocalizations and physical actions, it has been unclear whether these physical actions were deliberate gestures used for communication. Also unclear was how gestures and vocalizations are combined during greetings, the researchers said.

“This is a first step to understanding the ways elephants communicate with vision and touch,” Eleuteri said. “There had been descriptions of them using different body movements, but we didn’t really know whether these were actually communicative.”

The majority of previous research regarding communication among mammals has been focused on chimpanzees and other apes. The lack of existing research in elephant communication inspired Eleuteri to embark on the study. After witnessing elephants interacting in the wild, she became convinced that the gestures they employed were intentional, she said, adding that greetings in the wild are “very elaborate.”

“If you spend time with elephants, you can even tell when they’re communicating at you,” she said.

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