When a male African savanna elephant curls his ears and waves them at the same time, he’s ready to battle. When a woman folds her ears and complements the move with an ear flap, she’s sending a strong message. Elephants, on the other hand, are showing a loving, affiliative welcome that is part of their bonding ceremonies when they gather together and curl their ears while swiftly flapping them.
Elephants have a vast communication repertoire, which includes hundreds of sounds and gestures that express unique meanings and can alter depending on the situation. Different elephant populations have culturally taught habits that are distinct to each group. Elephant behavior is so complicated that even experts may find it difficult to keep up with it all. Now, a prominent biologist who has been studying endangered savanna elephants for almost 50 years has co-developed a digital elephant ethogram, a library of everything known about their behavior and communication, to get the animals and researchers on the same page.
“I believe it is impossible to properly show and explain a species’ behavior without using a multimedia approach, and we hope that this will inspire other scientists to use a similar approach for other species,” says Joyce Poole, co-founder, and scientific director of ElephantVoices, a nonprofit science and conservation organization, and co-creator of the new ethogram. “At a time when biodiversity is dwindling and people are having a significant influence on elephants’ lives, we also want to make clear to the world what we stand to lose.”
Poole and her husband and research colleague Petter Granli created the searchable public database after realizing that scientific publications alone would no longer enough for chronicling the findings they and others were making. More than 500 actions are shown in the Elephant Ethogram, which comprises approximately 3,000 annotated videos, pictures, and audio data. Poole and Granli collected the bulk, if not all, of normal elephant activities from more than 100 references spanning more than 100 years, with the earliest recordings reaching back to 1907. About half of the behaviors reported came from the two researchers’ study and observations, while the remainder came from roughly seven different savanna elephant study teams.
While Poole and Granli’s findings lie at the heart of the ethogram, Poole points out that “there are very few, if any, examples of behaviors documented in the literature that we have not witnessed ourselves.”She also points out that the project is only getting started because it is intended to be a live library that scientists actively contribute to when discoveries are made.
“Elephants are known to interact and communicate in sophisticated ways. However, we have just scratched the surface of how intricate that behavior and communication is,” says Lucy Bates, a visiting research scholar focusing on elephant cognition at the University of Sussex in England who was not involved in the ethogram’s creation. “Now that we have this foundation—which is publicly available in the public domain—we can develop a far more thorough picture of what elephants do and why.”
Ethograms are collections of animal actions and behaviors, either in a particular setting or for the entire species. Ethograms are used by researchers to analyze behavior and make comparisons across ages, sexes, families, communities, and other species. While a digital ethogram for laboratory mice exists, and a written ethogram for chimps has been published, Poole and Granli think the Elephant Ethogram is the first of its sort for any nonhuman wild species. Poole says that the project’s multimodal element is vital since descriptions based just on the written word, audio recordings, or images are not possible, “It’s difficult to demonstrate the frequently minute changes in movement that distinguish one activity from another.”
Scientists understood virtually little about elephant behavior when Poole began researching them in 1975. Her early studies focused on musth, a male elephant reproductive condition marked by testosterone surges and increased hostility. Poole observed the creatures threateningly waving their ears, and she occasionally heard a low, throbbing sound accompanying this movement. She assumed it was the sound of her ears whooshing through the air at first, but she quickly realized it was a vocalization. She started to wonder whether the animals were producing other sounds that her ears couldn’t pick up.
Poole collaborated with acoustic biologist Katy Payne to further investigate these findings. They discovered that some of the rumbles elephants make have frequencies beyond the human hearing range and that some of these noises are so loud that they can be detected by elephants kilometers away. This study shed light on several elephant puzzles, including how members of a family may swiftly reunite after being separated and how the animals may respond in full unison when a threat is identified without making a sound.
“Elephant ESP has been speculated about for a long time,” Poole explains. “Some of their vocalizations are so loud that they are conveyed as vibrations through the ground, serving as a type of bush telegraph for elephants signaling, ‘There’s trouble.'”
Poole noticed that the significance of many of the acts she was documenting altered depending on the setting as she continued to observe elephants. When one elephant swats the tail of another, it’s normally to signal the other to back off since it’s standing too near. Mothers, on the other hand, utilize tail swatting to keep an eye on babies standing behind them. Elephants use it to annoy or nag for attention in different situations.
For the time being, the Maasai Mara National Reserve, often known as the Mara, and Amboseli National Park in Kenya, as well as Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, account for the bulk of entries in the Elephant Ethogram. However, because most elephant behaviors are maintained throughout populations, the small number of locations does not necessarily reduce the variety of behaviors in the database. However, depending on the study site, the frequency of certain behaviors may vary. Because the soil in Amboseli is salty, elephants never dig for minerals, and Poole has only ever seen an Amboseli elephant shake a tree to knock down seed pods because the area is devoid of trees. Elephants in the Mara, on the other hand, frequently dig for minerals and shake trees for seeds. They’re also common in Gorongosa.
Between populations, there might be significant cultural variations. 90% of the elephants in Gorongosa were murdered for their ivory and flesh during the Mozambican Civil War. The elephants there still respond nervously and aggressively against people over 30 years later. “We detect practically no defensive reactions toward people in Amboseli and the Mara,” Poole adds. “How long would it take for elephants to shed their customs when Gorongosa has a rebirth under new protection and restoration? ”
The solution will very certainly be cataloged in the Elephant Ethogram at some point in the future. Poole hopes that now that the project is online, other researchers will start contributing their observations and findings, expanding the database to include cultural discoveries from other savanna elephant communities as well as unique behaviors that Poole and Granli may have overlooked Kelly Fogel, a wildlife photographer, recently uploaded unusual film of an elephant eating her placenta after giving birth, for example. Elephant Aware, a non-profit conservation organization, also brought in a video showing a calf trying to milk from her deceased mother, which is also unusual. “We hope that now that the Elephant Ethogram is public, more of our colleagues will submit uncommon footage from their populations,” Poole adds.
According to Michael Pardo, a postdoctoral researcher investigating African elephant vocal communication at Colorado State University, the ethogram is already an “invaluable tool” for young scientists interested in performing field research on elephants. According to him, the ethogram would also verify that scientists are talking about the same thing when discussing a given behavior. “This is critical because, all too frequently in the scientific literature, misunderstandings over nomenclature and meanings may lead to researchers talking over each other,” Pardo says.
The Elephant Ethogram is “a major achievement,” according to Daniela Hedwig, a research associate at Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project. Hedwig researches forest elephant communication in other regions of Africa, and she believes the savanna elephant database will be “a very important resource for drawing similarities between the two species.”
The ethogram will also be useful in analyzing the lives of captive elephants, according to Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya. Elephants in circuses, zoos, and work contexts, according to Poole, are robbed of detailed social relationships as well as the chance to move and interact with a diverse environment. As a result, they become bored and engage in stereotypical behaviors like rocking back and forth. According to Poole, the Elephant Ethogram can give insights on the severity of behavioral differences between captive and wild elephants, bolstering the cause for elephant abolition.
The database will also be useful for wildlife managers and conservationists trying to distinguish between normal, healthy elephant behaviors and those generated by stressful situations like poaching and habitat destruction, according to Moss. As elephants in the wild confront increasing pressure to adapt their behaviors to a people-dominated environment, the necessity for such comparisons is growing. “The ability of elephants to culturally adjust will be important for their future survival,” adds Poole. “We’ll learn a lot more about their ingenuity and adaptability when they’re pushed to change.”