Monday, October 8, 2012

What do you mean by that? Elephant Communication Pt.2

Last time I considered the vast distances over which elephants communicate and the incredible means by which they achieve this. This time I want to think about more close range communication which is a different, but equally important, mode of maintaining an elaborate hierarchical society. 

Humans use an extensive array of facial expressions during face-to-face interactions which elephants obviously can’t do (although sometimes I like to imagine them rolling their eyes at us when we present them with yet another impossible control test!). But the lack of expressive facial muscles doesn’t mean they can’t convey as much emotion. Close range behaviors include vocalizations, body postures and trunk movements. So along with the infra-sonic rumbles, elephants produce a number of sounds audible to us. To name a few, these include roars, trumpets, and cries and only in Asian elephants; chirps and trunk bounces. Different vocalization-gesture combinations can mean different things depending on the context.   

Gestures can also be tactile between two elephants
For example, an erect tail, ears straight out and a roar indicate a very upset or angry elephant, whereas these same gestures in combination with a baby squeal suggest an excited elephant looking to play. 

This is not only interesting from the perspective of how elephants communicate and what they’re going on about when they do, but it raises points on the evolution of language. It is rare in the animal kingdom for communicative messages to be generalized to more than one context. Most animals just have one vocalization or gestures for one meaning. For example, in tandem running ants an experienced ant will show a novice ant where to find food. The inexperienced ant communicates to the other that he is ready to move onto the next part of the journey by tapping on the back its companion with its antennae. This ‘I’m ready’ message is only conveyed in one specific context and so it is unlikely any complex cognition is necessary. However when the same behavior has more than one meaning then the animal must consider its environment, audience and which combinations of behaviors are required to convey the desired message in a given situation. 

A lot of trunk behaviors and vocalizations are used during greetings
So communication may be yet another example of elephants overlapping with primates in their intelligence. As well as showing amazing feats of organization over long distances, elephants show an extensive and elaborate display of communication during face-to-face (or more importantly for elephants; body-to-body) interactions. From an evolutionary perspective, this further justifies why they are extremely interesting to study.  

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