Animals communicate in ways that we humans don’t always understand. More and more research indicates that elephants in particular have a complex language that includes sounds that are below our range of hearing (infrasound), vibrations that we can’t feel, and chemicals we can’t smell the difference between. Unraveling the elephant language is the mission of places like ElephantVoices and the Elephant Listening Project.
Like us, elephants use body language to communicate and an observant person can learn the meaning behind these gestures. Here are some examples you can take with you the next time you visit a zoo or watch a nature program. More examples as well as photographs are available from the Poole, J.H. & Granli, P.K. 2009. ElephantVoices Gestures Database. Challenge yourself by trying to discern what an elephant is telling you without speaking a word.
|Happy||Smile, raised eyebrows, lines by the eyes. Laughter, broad gestures, energetic movements, bounce to the step.||Eyes bright and attentive, trunk curled up, broad, relaxed gestures like head shakes and ear flaps, playful bounce in walk.|
|Scared||Wide eyes, shortened breathing, slack jaw. Arms tight to body, posture slumped and small.||Wide eyes, cocked head, trunk curled under, bowed back, cocked ears.|
|Angry||Creased eyebrows, frowning mouth, focused or intense eyes. Taller posture, broadened chest, clinched fists.||Tall posture, direct gaze, eyes open, head raised, ears spread. Direct, purposeful, advance.|
|Bored||Rolling, or searching gaze, neutral or frowning expression. Slouching posture or displays of bad behavior designed to attract attention.||Searching gaze, plucking at vegetation but not eating, throwing dust, ducked head or chasing smaller animals and destroying their environment in an effort to|
|Celebratory||Smiling, laughing, dancing, hugging, slapping hands, kissing.||Intertwining trunks, pressing open mouths together, dancing around each other. Flapping ears, nodding heads, clicking tusks.|