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Elephants have heartwarming ways to greet their friends

Elephants are amazing creatures known not only for their impressive size but for their intelligence and deep social connections. Just like us, they have ways of communicating and building their friendships. But you might be surprised to learn just how elaborate those greetings can be.

What makes an elephant greeting special

Elephants, like humans, have unique ways of greeting each other, involving an elaborate blend of sounds and movements. A recent study analyzed how a herd of semi-captive elephants in Zimbabwe greet one another, uncovering a wide range of distinctive behaviors.

Here’s a detailed breakdown of their fascinating greeting rituals:

Vocal lineup

  • Rumbling: A deep, resonant vocalization produced by vibrating the vocal cords. Elephants often rumble as a form of communication, signaling reassurance, excitement, or even warning. During greetings, rumbling is frequently combined with ear flapping, a rhythmic movement that accentuates the sound.
  • Trumpeting: A high-pitched, trumpet-like call usually associated with excitement or alertness. Elephants produce this sound by forcefully expelling air through their trunks. During greetings, trumpeting often signals a positive emotional state, as elephants celebrate a reunion.
  • Roaring: A loud, intense vocalization used in more elaborate greetings. Roaring indicates heightened excitement and is often accompanied by dynamic physical gestures like ear spreading or trunk swinging. The roar adds a layer of energy to the greetings, emphasizing the emotional connection between elephants.

The movements

  • Ear flapping and spreading: Ear flapping involves rapidly moving the ears back and forth, creating a distinctive swishing sound. Ear spreading, on the other hand, is when elephants extend their ears outward to their fullest extent. Both behaviors are used to enhance communication, drawing attention to the vocalizations and adding visual emphasis.
  • Tail wagging: Elephants wag their tails in various ways, from gentle swaying to vigorous movements. Tail wagging often reflects the elephant’s emotional state and adds a playful or welcoming note to the greeting. It’s comparable to how dogs wag their tails when they see a familiar face.
  • Trunk swinging: A rhythmic, side-to-side movement of the trunk, sometimes combined with trunk reaching toward the other elephant. Trunk swinging demonstrates recognition and familiarity, reinforcing social bonds between elephants.
  • Approaching backwards: A unique gesture where an elephant approaches another elephant with its back. This unexpected behavior is thought to be playful, creating an element of surprise and demonstrating trust within the herd.

The smelly surprise in elephant greeting

  • Urination and defecation: Often present during greetings, possibly as a form of scent marking or stress relief. Elephants might urinate or defecate in response to excitement or heightened emotions when meeting a friend. This behavior can provide olfactory cues that enhance recognition.
  • Special sweat gland secretions: Elephants have a unique gland located on their temporal region (between the eyes and ears). This gland releases a distinctive scent that plays a crucial role in social communication. During greetings, elephants often secrete from this gland, adding another layer of olfactory information to their greeting rituals.

“Hello” depends on who’s watching (and smelling)

Elephants are not only sophisticated in their greetings but also incredibly adaptable in how they communicate based on the attention they’re receiving. Here’s a fascinating aspect of their social behavior:

When elephants are being observed

Researchers from University of Vienna discovered that elephants tailor their greetings depending on whether the other elephant is watching or not. When the greeting elephant knows it’s being watched by its buddy, it focuses more on visual gestures to make the interaction more engaging. Common visual gestures include:

Trunk reaching:

  • The greeting elephant extends its trunk toward the other elephant, often reaching out to touch the face or trunk of their friend.
  • This gesture is a clear signal of recognition and a desire to connect physically.

Ear spreading:

  • The elephant spreads its ears wide apart, making itself appear larger and more impressive.
  • Ear spreading is visually striking and conveys excitement and recognition.

Trunk swinging:

  • The trunk is swung rhythmically from side to side or in circular motions.
  • Trunk swinging can signify playfulness and reinforces the bond between the elephants.

When elephants aren’t observed

When the greeting elephant notices that its buddy isn’t paying attention, it switches to communication methods that don’t rely on visual cues. Instead, they use sounds and touch to capture attention or communicate affection:

Ear flapping:

  • The elephant rapidly moves its ears back and forth, creating a distinctive swishing sound.
  • Ear flapping is often paired with rumbling or trumpeting, providing an auditory signal that’s hard to ignore.

Ear slapping on the neck:

  • The elephant slaps its ears against its neck, producing a sound that can be heard by nearby elephants.
  • This action adds emphasis to vocalizations like rumbling or trumpeting.

Trunk touching:

  • The elephant reaches out with its trunk to touch the face, trunk, or body of its friend.
  • Physical touch reinforces social bonds and provides comfort or reassurance.

Significance of flexible elephant greeting

This flexibility in greeting behavior illustrates the adaptability of elephants’ communication strategies. By adjusting their greetings based on whether they’re being watched, elephants ensure that their messages are received and understood.

When they have an attentive audience, elephants use more visual signals like trunk reaching, ear spreading, and trunk swinging to capture attention. However, when not being observed, they rely on auditory and tactile cues such as ear flapping and trunk touching.

This adaptability demonstrates their social intelligence, as elephants choose the most effective way to say “hello” depending on their audience’s attention.

“Our results suggest that social relationships flexibly impact the use of signals by elephants during greeting, and supports the hypothesis that elaborate greeting behaviour functions to strengthen social bonds upon reunion,” noted the researchers.

Why are elephant greetings so elaborate?

Researchers believe these elaborate greetings serve multiple purposes. They help strengthen social bonds and show recognition, particularly among closely bonded females. The combination of vocalizations, trunk reaching, and ear spreading reinforces their connections and ensures a warm welcome.

In addition, male elephants often direct their trunks towards other males, which researchers suggest could promote positive interactions or help them sniff out chemical information about potential competition.

This behavior enables them to assess each other’s status and intentions, facilitating a more nuanced understanding of their social environment and ensuring smoother interactions within their community.

Like humans (and apes)

Elephants aren’t the only ones with clever communication skills. Humans, chimpanzees, and other apes also use a mix of sounds and gestures, adapting how they communicate to fit the situation. Humans combine verbal language with facial expressions and body language to convey emotions and intentions.

Chimpanzees and other apes similarly use vocalizations like pant-hoots and screams, alongside gestures like hand waves or embraces, to express dominance, friendliness, or alarm. Both humans and apes modify their communication based on context, audience, and social hierarchy, demonstrating remarkable flexibility and intelligence in their social interactions.

The next time you see footage of an elephant greeting, pay close attention: there’s a whole conversation happening. Their elaborate rituals remind us just how intelligent and socially complex animals can be. It’s yet another reason to appreciate and protect these awe-inspiring creatures.


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