How Do Elephants Say Hello? Reunions Lead to Ear Flapping, Rumbling and Trunk Swinging in Greeting

New research explores how African savannah elephants use vocalizations, gestures and secretions when they meet up with companions

Two elephants standing next to each other
Elephants use different greetings depending on whether the other animal is looking at them. Vesta Eleuteri

When humans meet up with a companion they haven’t seen for a while, they may wave, shake hands or hug while saying something like, “Hey, how are you?”

Now, new research suggests African savannah elephants do the same. These massive mammals greet each other with a mix of gestures and sounds—by flapping their ears, making rumbling noises, waggling their tails and reaching out their trunks, scientists reported last week in the journal Communications Biology.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social creatures that live in “fission-fusion societies,” meaning they regularly split up—then later reunite—as they roam around their environment.

When elephants meet again after spending time apart, they appear to greet each other. However, researchers weren’t sure whether the animals were communicating intentionally. They were also curious about how elephants use gestures and vocalizations in combination, a concept known as multimodal communication.

“This is a first step to understanding the ways elephants communicate with vision and touch,” says study lead author Vesta Eleuteri, an animal behaviorist at the University of Vienna, to ABC News’ Julia Jacobo. “There had been descriptions of them using different body movements, but we didn’t really know whether these were actually communicative.”

Elephant greeting 1

To better understand elephant greetings, researchers worked with nine semi-captive African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) at the Jafuta Reserve in Zimbabwe that spend their days roaming freely and their nights in stables. They observed the animals—five males and four females—in November and December 2021.

First, they figured out which elephants were well-acquainted by examining how much time they spent in proximity of each other. Then, working with pairs of friendly elephants, they separated the two animals for roughly ten minutes, then brought them back together and observed their greetings. In total, scientists recorded 1,014 physical actions and 268 vocalizations during 89 reunions.

When they analyzed the data, some patterns began to emerge. The most commonly recorded greeting was a low rumble coupled with ear flapping. Females were more likely than males to use this communication combination, which mirrors the way that females more frequently use elaborate greetings in the wild, per the paper.

“Just like I might wave my hand and yell ‘Hey!’ at my friend across the street, elephants appear to also combine appropriate communications signals for when they are greeting their friends,” says Robbie Ball, a comparative psychologist at the City University of New York who was not involved in the research, to Live Science’s Meg Duff.

Elephant greeting 2

Elephants also changed their greetings based on whether their companion was looking at them or not: They were more likely to use visual gestures, like trunk swinging, when their partner was looking directly at them, and more likely to use physical touch or gestures that produce sound when their partner was looking elsewhere.

The animals often performed scent-related behaviors during their greetings, such as urinating and defecation, and they secreted chemicals from their temporal glands, which are located between their eyes and ears. Elephants’ bodily fluids communicate lots of important information about them, such as their identity, reproductive state and emotional state.

Of the 89 greetings the scientists observed, 71 percent involved olfactory behaviors.

Elephant greeting 3

“Elephants might defecate or urinate during greetings to release this important information,” Eleuteri tells Reuters’ Will Dunham. “Another option is that they do this due to the excitement of seeing each other. But the fact that the elephants often moved their tails to the side or waggled their tails when urinating and defecating suggests they may be inviting the recipients to smell them. Maybe they don’t need to tell each other how they’re doing, as they can smell it.”

Moving forward, researchers hope to document all the different gestures elephants use to communicate, as well as what each one means. Longer term, this “gestural repertoire” could help researchers learn even more about these impressive creatures.

“What is particularly exciting for me is that with this focus on gestures, we are stepping into a new realm of elephant communication, and a window into their minds, which has been relatively neglected,” Eleuteri tells Psychology Today’s Mary Bates.

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