What Elephant Calls Mean: A User's Guide

From powerful roars to low-frequency rumbles, elephants use a variety of vocalizations to communicate. Their sounds also include snorts, barks, grunts, trumpets, cries, and even imitated sounds. These calls are essential cues for the survival of an elephant family. Elephant biologist and National Geographic Explorer Joyce Poole, along with ElephantVoices co-director Petter Granli, have recorded thousands of elephant calls. They have divided these into different categories, or “call types” (e.g., rumbles versus trumpets), in an elephant acoustic database and based on behavioral context, call tone, and measurement, they have interpreted the meanings of the many intricate differences within each type in their call context database.

“What’s really impressive about elephants is that they are such extraordinary team players,” Poole said. “For an elephant family to survive, especially against intelligent predators like humans, it’s important that they stick together and help each other. They have evolved complex communication as part of this teamwork.”

By Christy Ullrich Barcus

Graphic by Emily M. Eng, Xaquín G.V., NG Staff; Art by Álvaro Valiño; Audio by Joyce Poole and Petter Granli, ElephantVoices

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When an elephant proposes “I want to go this way; let’s go together,” she says “let’s go,” in a rumble.

The elephant will use her body to point in the direction she wants to go, sometimes lifting her foot. Every minute or so, she makes what Poole has described as a “let’s go” rumble, while flapping her ears. In this recording, a young female makes a “let’s go” call 12 times over the span of nearly half an hour to encourage the group to head to the swamp. “Elephants have plans of action that are clear from their body language and calls. They may discuss, negotiate, or agree to differ.”

This may lead to a temporary split in the family, but that’s just a good excuse to catch up with a greeting celebration later on.

The greeting ceremony is key to cementing bonds in an elephant family. Elephants vocalize a greeting-rumble as they hold their heads high, vigorously flap their ears, and reach out and touch family members with their trunks. They secrete from their temporal glands, urinate, and defecate. Sometimes they show their excitement about being back together by clanking tusks together and spinning around, as if doing pirouettes.

Such ceremonies cement bonds required for the teamwork an elephant family needs to defend itself against predators like lions or humans.

Elephants use soft rumbling sounds to alert the extended family to Maasai warriors, or they may emit a commanding roar or trumpet-blast to intimidate a lion lurking in the bush. In this recording, a lion attacks an elephant calf. The calf screams, and immediately his mother and other adult females rush to him. They use mobbing tactics, making powerful rumbles with a roaring quality to scare off the lion. In the midst of this commotion, an alarmed juvenile trumpets and an adult gives a threatening trumpet-blast.

Even mating is a close family affair during which young elephants learn behaviors vital to their future reproductive success.

Males have a sexually active period, called musth, that lasts for months, while females are receptive for just a few days. During the period of musth, males search for females while advertising their heightened sexual and aggressive state with particular behaviors, secretions, and a pulsating musth-rumble, which is given while waving one ear at a time. An estrous female secretes from her temporal glands, urinates, and makes a series of powerful estrous-rumbles after mating, to attract the attention of any distant higher-ranking males, as heard here. Family members add their voices by giving a cacophony of calls in a mating-pandemonium.

A mother’s extraordinary care and protection for her young forms the core behaviors and relationships that bind a family together.

When an elephant calf is hungry, he makes a begging-rumble and walks parallel to his mother, lifting his trunk so he can suckle milk from her breasts. Usually mothers will stop moving and place a foreleg forward to let their calves feed.

But even mother elephants have to show tough love to their calves during weaning.

If a calf is denied access to the breast, as heard in this recording, he may escalate his demand by combining a cry with a rumble, making a cry-rumble. When that doesn’t work, the calf's call crescendos to a roar.

Yet if a calf is truly in distress, his mother, along with the whole family, is incredibly attentive and will huddle around him to offer comfort.

A calf's mother and juvenile females, or “aunties,” surround him to offer comfort, touching his mouth, belly, and his genitals while making soothing cooing-rumbles. In this recording, a calf roars when his grandmother kicks him as she tries to keep him from touching her newborn, who hyenas had tried to attack earlier in the day. The calf's roar brings his mother rushing from the swamp to console him. He responds to the comfort with what Poole calls a “baroo” rumble that means: “Woe is me; I’ve been so hard done by.”

And that care helps nurture their personalities, which are seen, for example, during playtime, when elephants run around in wild abandon making trumpeting calls.

Elephants like to let loose and play around. They run around in a loose, floppy way, heads down, trunks swinging, and tails up as they make pulsating play-trumpets and nasal play-trumpets. Poole said that on several occasions elephants have mock-charged her car while trumpeting and then playfully pretended to trip and fall down.