Elephants may use a variety of subtle movements and gestures to communicate with one another, according to researchers who have studied the big mammals in the wild for decades. To the casual human observer, a curl of the trunk, a step backward, or a fold of the ear may not have meaning. But to an elephantâ€”and scientists like Joyce Pooleâ€”these are signals that convey vital information to individual elephants and the overall herd.
Biologist and conservationist Joyce Poole and her husband, Petter Granli, both of whom direct ElephantVoices, a charity they founded to research and advocate for conservation of elephants in various sanctuaries in Africa, have developed an online database decoding hundreds of distinct elephant signals and gestures. The postures and movements underscore the sophistication of elephant communication, they say. Poole and Granli have also deciphered the meaning of acoustic communication in elephants, interpreting the different rumbling, roaring, screaming, trumpeting, and other idiosyncratic sounds that elephants make in concert with postures such as the positioning and flapping of their ears.
Poole has studied elephants in Africa for more than 37 years, but only began developing the online gestures database in the past decade. Some of her research and conservation work has been funded by the National Geographic Society.
â€œI noticed that when I would take out guests visiting Amboseli [National Park in Kenya] and was narrating the elephantsâ€™ behavior, I got to the point where 90 percent of the time, I could predict what the elephant was about to do,â€ Poole said in an interview. â€œIf they stood a certain way, they were afraid and were about to retreat, or [in another way] they were angry and were about to move toward and threaten another.â€