Joyce Poole was 6 years old and lived in Malawi when her family went north to see the wild African elephants in what is now Amboseli National Park in Kenya. When Dr. Poole’s father, who was a serious photographer, spotted a particularly majestic male elephant, stopped the car and started taking pictures.
“What if the elephant attacks?” Joyce asked nervously.
“He’s going to crush our car to the size of a pea pod,” her father replied, blinking through his camera.
A moment later the elephant stormed.
Joyce screamed and dived under the seat. Her father yanked the car out of the way. The engine stopped and the elephant stormed again before finally deciding the canned tourists weren’t worth the rush. For years, Dr. Poole: “I was pretty suspicious of elephants.”
But in the fine rom-com tradition of “Pride and Prejudice” or “As Harry Met Sally”, early distrust gave way to lasting love. Today Dr. Poole, 65, a leading authority on the African savannah elephant, the largest land animal on earth and one of the most cognitively and behaviorally complex animals.
She and her staff have gained important insights into elephant sexuality, elephant family life, elephant foraging, elephant social scene and elephant communication strategies, including the surprising discovery that elephants can stay in touch with their peers far away, by making low-frequency signals that humans can barely hear.
During her career, Dr. Poole spent tens of thousands of hours in the field observing, tracking, and analyzing wild elephants. Now Dr. Poole and her husband Petter Granli in a large project that other animal biologists describe as “an amazing achievement” and “an immense treasure,” the fruits of their field research in a huge publicly accessible database called. compiled the Elephant Ethogram: A Library of African Elephant Behavior.
Published in late May by the nonprofit group ElephantVoices, the ethogram is a detailed compendium of the basic flavors and phonemes of elephant behavior an observer is likely to encounter: the clapping, puckering, folding, and clapping of the elephant’s huge, expressive ears; the way the torso curls, stretches, swings, probes, tugs, sucks, and shows; the subtle swings of the tail that are easy to miss but shouldn’t be; the not-so-subtle braids and bulges of the phallus of an excited male, like a second trunk and sometimes getting in the way of a clumsy male; the trumpets, rumble, greetings, pleading, scolding, teasing and threatening. Around 500 behaviors and 110 behavior suites are described in a wide variety of contexts, and the library is still growing.
And although ethograms of varying thoroughness have been compiled for other species, what is special about the new elephant ethogram – and addicting even for laypeople – is the inclusion of more than 3,000 video and audio clips illustrating the written descriptions.
“It’s an incredible scientific achievement and a wonderful addition to our knowledge,” said Cynthia Moss, founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and another leading figure in the field. “To have all postures, gestures, sounds and signals displayed and explained in one place, I don’t know otherwise.”
The encyclopedic ethogram comes amid an ongoing crisis for Africa’s wild elephants. At the end of March, the International Union for Conservation of Nature officially divided African elephants into two different species, the savannah elephants described in the ethogram and the smaller, rarer and elusive forest elephants. Both are now classified as endangered, the forest elephant critical. In 1913 there were an estimated 10 million elephants on the African continent. Today there are only 400,000 or so left.
Elephants continue to be slaughtered for their magnificent tusks, which are heavily modified incisors and are much more useful to elephants than carved ivory status symbols displayed on a chessboard. But the more serious threat is habitat loss and human clashes over access to land and water. Elephant biologists argue that the more we understand how elephants think, the greater the chances of keeping elephants alive.
Michael Pardo, a postdoctoral fellow at Colorado State University who completed his Ph.D. Thesis on woodpeckers, switched to studying voice communication with African elephants three years ago. “Elephant behavior can be subtle, and it is sometimes difficult to understand why an elephant is crying,” he said. “Joyce has spent a lot of time studying the context of various calls and the videos give me a feel for what to look for in this area.”
Dr. As an example, Pardo cited the “Let’s go” roll, a basso profundo rumble that a lady elephant sends out to announce her desire to move on.
“I knew these calls were there, but when I first went into the field it wasn’t as easy to identify as it sounded on paper,” he said. The Elephant Ethogram features 13 clips of the rumble to aid the research tyros of tomorrow.
Daniela Hedwig, research fellow at Cornell University’s Elephants Listening Project who studies forest elephants, said, “African elephants can serve as a really cool study system for the evolution of complex communication systems, including our own language.”
The ethogram is based on studies of three elephant populations: two in Kenya in Amboseli National Park and in the Masai Mara Reserve and the third in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique with a total of around 6,000 elephants. The different groups have a number of cultural characteristics. In the Maasai Mara, for example, some elephants spend a dozen minutes standing still over a bush.
“They pretend the bush is something other than a bush, like it’s a calf,” said Dr. Poole, making the face of a mother elephant suckling a calf. It turned out that all but one of the straddlers in the bush were juvenile females, suggesting the behavior was some kind of maternal training technique they learned from watching others. In Gorongosa, elephant women of all ages are notoriously misanthropic, the legacy of Mozambique’s 25-year civil war when elephants were slaughtered en masse. While many of today’s Gorongosa elephants were born after the war, Dr. Poole, “they learned a culture of aggression from their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers.”
Wherever elephants live, they seem to build their extensive social vocabulary by mixing and matching familiar gestures and sounds. Context is key. Elephants, for example, often arrange their trunks in a periscope shape, but the meaning of the conformation depends on the circumstances. In a calf, it can indicate a desire to suckle. From a young man who wants to play. Elephants also adopt a periscope trunk when they sense something of unusual interest or danger, and there is evidence that they point each other with the tip of the periscope as if pointing at the source of the problem. Spreading the ears can serve as a warning or a friendly hello, depending on how often the ears flap wide, whether they are folded or raised at the same time, and how high the elephant’s chin is.
Meanwhile, wild elephants love to keep in touch – literally with their bodies; olfactory by smells that drip down from the temporal glands and which other elephants can perceive through their trunk-length nasal cavities, which are more sensitive than those of a bloodhound; or acoustically, through rumbling, barking, roaring and trumpeting. The rumble sounds like a very deep cat purr and is by far the most common and varied utterance of the elephant.
“Some are quiet, some loud, some rise and fall in pitch,” said Dr. Pardo. He has preliminary evidence that elephants use rumble to call each other by name. “So far, our results show that elephants address individual family members with unique calls,” he said. “And when different elephants address the same person, they use a similar call.”
Which is never Dumbo or Bimbo. Aristotle was right when he judged elephants as “the animal that surpasses all others in intelligence and understanding”. The famous mirror recognition test demonstrated that elephants have a sense of self-awareness, and female elephants – who form the core of the elephant society – track hundreds of individuals through multilevel networks of family units, bond groups, and clans. on the entire population.
Elephants are not stupid, but they are friendly. “Elephants show some of the characteristics that we would like,” said Dr. Moss. “They care deeply about their families and are tolerant of unrelatives.”
A grown man can weigh twice as much as a woman’s 7,000 pounds, but he doesn’t play the pestering baboon.
“Even these big males in musth, when they have spikes in testosterone, they are so gentle on females and calves,” said Dr. Poole. Instead, a bull spends his annual two- or three-month erotic drive looking for willing females in oestrus or fighting other males in musth males while eating relatively little.
Otherwise, elephants are tireless gourmets who spend around 16 hours a day tearing down branches, digging through bushes, and nimble brushing branches from their foliage. Elephants are considered to be ecosystem engineers and open up opportunities for a range of smaller life forms. At the same time, the elephants’ appetite can cause them to raid local orchards and gardens and destroy the livelihood of subsistence farmers overnight.
Elephant biologists and conservationists admit that living with elephants is not easy, but said the thought of their extinction is unbearable. “It would be a very sad earth,” said Dr. Moss, “if elephants didn’t step over it.”