Elephant greetings are special

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Witnessing elephants greeting always makes me smile, because of the clear joy elephants take in being with one another. These displays of excited behaviour serve an important function, especially when there is a new arrival in the family …

BY VICKI FISHLOCK | IFAW | 13 APRIL 2015

Elephant society is a fission-fusion system; individuals with important relationships can separate (the “fission”) and then re-join one another (the “fusion”). This flexibility allows elephants to manage competition when resources are scarce, but maintain close relationships with family members and friends. To reinforce relationships after a period of separation, reuniting elephants greet one another. Greetings operate on every modality – sight, sound, smell and touch.

“Their voices, like ours, are individually distinct, and each adult female recognises about 100 other females by voice alone. I have to say, that’s better than I could do without caller ID on my phone.”

As with all elements of elephant behaviour, greetings are flexible and vary in the strength of the various signals used. That variation depends on the elephants involved, and the amount of time they have been separated for.

Sight – elephants hold their heads high and spread their ears,

Sound – special greeting-rumbles, the upper harmonics of which are audible to humans, can escalate into trumpets.

Elephants “talk” to each other almost constantly, emitting low-pitched rumbles that go back and forth between family members as they feed and travel and go about their day. Their voices, like ours, are individually distinct, and each adult female recognises about 100 other females by voice alone.

Elephants “talk” to each other almost constantly, emitting low-pitched rumbles that go back and forth between family members as they feed and travel and go about their day.

So calling with greeting rumbles is a chorus of hellos between reunited friends…

Smell – elephants stream from their temporal glands (located behind the eye), releasing a rich mixture of volatile compounds that evaporate into a cloud of scent information. These compounds contain hormone metabolites signalling individual identity, reproductive state and emotional state (stress hormones such as cortisol). Elephants may also urinate and defecate during greeting.

Touch – greeting elephants rub bodies together, touch faces and mouths and temporal glands. Very excited greetings involve individuals rushing together, clicking tusks and holding each others’ heads high while rumbling.

“Full-throttle” greetings are touching and special.

Watch the author’s video above, as the OA family greet their newest addition, a healthy baby boy.

Some families greet far more frequently than others, but since I decided I want to film this behaviour for a blog post, I hadn’t seen any greetings worthy of the name.

I had almost given up, when I found Omo River from the OA family, all alone and very tired and anxious, having just given birth. She was right to be anxious – four hyenas were fighting over the afterbirth a few hundred metres away, and she and the new calf were vulnerable if they stayed alone.

Omo River was heading in the direction I had sighted the rest of the family earlier, but very slowly and hesitantly, pausing often to stop and listen. She even seemed worried by the research car, which had never bothered her before. Although this wasn’t her first calf, it must have been a particularly tiring birth.

I had almost given up, when I found Omo River from the OA family, all alone and very tired and anxious, having just given birth. She was right to be anxious – four hyenas were fighting over the afterbirth a few hundred metres away, and she and the new calf were vulnerable if they stayed alone.

I decided to keep my distance, and wait to see what would happen. It took some patience, but after almost an hour I was between Omo River and the rest of the family. The matriarch of the OA family is Omo River’s mother, Orabel. She is forty seven years old, and her experience really shines through sometimes. Elephants at their very best.

Watch the video above to see why we think she is such a wonderful mother and matriarch.


IFAW
INTERNATIONAL FUND FOR ANIMAL WELFARE (IFAW)

IFAW Founded in 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare saves individual animals, animal populations and habitats all over the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW provides hands-on assistance to animals in need, whether it’s dogs and cats, wildlife and livestock, or rescuing animals in the wake of disasters. We also advocate saving populations from cruelty and depletion, such as our campaign to end commercial whaling and seal hunts. Go to www.ifaw.org to find out more about our campaigns.

 

 

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