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Understanding elephant communication

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

We wave, we hug, we shake hands, or we just say, hey. Turns out we're not the only mammals that do this. So do elephants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANTS RUMBLING)

KURTZLEBEN: That is a recording of two savanna elephants greeting each other in Zimbabwe. The video was captured during a study of elephant behavior. And with us now is the study's lead author, Vesta Eleuteri. She's a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral and cognitive biology at the University of Vienna in Austria. Vesta, welcome.

VESTA ELEUTERI: Thank you very much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, of course. So, OK, I want to talk about that clip we just heard with that kind of rumbling sound. What are the elephants communicating to each other right there, if you had to guess?

ELEUTERI: Probably, they're saying, hey, it's you. I'm so excited to see you - but, you know, in human terms.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, tell me more about that because we humans, we can communicate things with words but can also change what those words mean based on our hand gestures, our facial gestures. What's the equivalent for elephants? What are their movements like?

ELEUTERI: So this is quite a new realm. It's the realm of multimodal or multicomponent communication in the field of animal communication. But here, what we found is that they often rumble and ear flap, which is a gesture that they make by flapping forward their ears. And they often do this by first rumbling and then starting to flap their ears. Or another variation was rumbling and then spreading their ears forward or roaring and touching the recipient with the tail. So there are different combinations.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm curious. Different people have different personalities. You have some people who are more demonstrative than others. I know I flap my hands around a lot while I'm talking. I'm doing it right now. I mean, is the same true for elephants? Do you have some elephants that you observed who are just bigger personalities than others?

ELEUTERI: Yes, a hundred percent. So there is the central male of the semi-captive group, who's called Doma. And he's the male that everyone likes or to whom everyone goes if there's any trouble. So you know that all the elephants like him a lot.

So during the greeting - so when we were reuniting Doma with a female or Doma with a male, they were all very excited to see Doma. And usually, they were presenting their rump towards Doma as if they were advertising that they were submitted to him and recognizing his status. And they were also very affinitive with him. They were bunching with him. They were touching him. And he was usually the one who would direct his trunk towards them to sniff them to maybe gain some information from them that was relevant to him.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. I want to play one other bit of sound from the study. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANTS ROARING)

KURTZLEBEN: OK, so you have a couple elephants there. They sound totally different. We're going to ask you to play translator again. What can you tell us about what they're communicating there?

ELEUTERI: So if I'm correct, I think that the one who's roaring - so you can hear that very deep roar - that's Doma. And the trumpet should be Mainos. It's difficult to say what exactly they're telling to each other because it's difficult to tell what these calls mean. But you can feel the excitement because trumpets are used when they're very excited, and roars also are used when they're very excited. So in this particular greeting, it was probably these two males that have this very, very strong bond with each other that were very happy to be together again.

KURTZLEBEN: What does all of this reveal to you about the social world of elephants?

ELEUTERI: Well, I already knew that elephants are deeply social beings, that they have these bonds that carry over for many, many years and that they have different kinds of ties with different individuals. But here, it was interesting to see that even in semi-captivity, this still holds, and it holds among sexes. And it means that maybe even in the wild, males also have stronger bonds. Because for now, what we know about elephant sociality mostly regards female elephants and the multilevel society they live in with the family group that is at the core, and it consists of the related females and offspring and then the bond groups of different families associating together a lot. But the data is lacking on male sociality. It might well be that even they have tighter social bonds and that this impacts their communication.

KURTZLEBEN: Vesta Eleuteri is a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral and cognitive biology at the University of Vienna in Austria. Vesta, thank you for speaking with us.

ELEUTERI: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FETE'S "THE ISLANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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