Elephants are extraordinary animals, known for their complex social interactions and sophisticated communication system. A recent study published in Nature Communications has revealed new and significant findings about how elephants use multimodal signals to communicate during greeting rituals between individuals reuniting.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Vienna, focused on observing and analyzing the communication behavior of a group of semi-captive African savanna elephants in Zimbabwe. Through a separation and reunion procedure, researchers were able to capture on video and audio the elaborate greetings elephants perform when reuniting after being separated.

A key finding is that elephants use a wide range of vocalizations, gestures, and other behaviors to communicate during these greeting rituals. They identified 20 different types of “body acts”, including movements of the ears, trunk, tail, and other parts of the body, as well as three main types of vocalizations: roars, trumpets, and bellows. These signals are combined in various ways, creating complex multimodal interactions.

One of the most interesting aspects is that researchers found evidence that many of these body acts represent “audience-directed gestures”, meaning signals intentionally produced by the elephant based on the visual attention of the recipient. For example, elephants used more silent and visual gestures when the recipient paid them visual attention, while they used more audible or tactile gestures when the recipient was not looking at them.

The signaller (right) is displayed using different body act types in the panels: a Ear-Spread, Tail-Waggling, and Trunk-Shaking; b Ears-Stiff, Back-Towards, and Tail-on-Side; c Ear-Flapping, Trunk-Reach, and Tail-Raise
The signaller (right) is displayed using different body act types in the panels: a Ear-Spread, Tail-Waggling, and Trunk-Shaking; b Ears-Stiff, Back-Towards, and Tail-on-Side; c Ear-Flapping, Trunk-Reach, and Tail-Raise. Credit: Megan Pacifici / Vesta Eleuter et al. / Nature Communications Biology

This finding suggests that elephants possess a form of “first-order intentionality” in their communication, a trait considered unique to human language until now. First-order intentionality involves the ability to produce signals with the aim of communicating something to a recipient and eliciting a reaction from them, taking into account their mental states.

The researchers propose that this ability, also observed in other primates, may have evolved convergently in distant species but with similar social and cognitive needs.

Furthermore, elephants not only produce audience-directed gestures but also specifically combine vocalizations and gestures into multimodal sequences. The most frequent pattern was the combination of a roar (a vocalization) with ear flapping (a gesture), with the roar often occurring first and the ear flapping following. Other types of combinations were also common, such as the roar followed by ear stiffness.

The researchers suggest that these multimodal combinations could have redundant functions, providing multisensory information about the individual’s state emitting the signals, such as their identity, reproductive status, or level of arousal. This information would be relevant for recipients during reunions, facilitating individual recognition and the strengthening of social bonds.

In fact, the data showed that females more often used the combination of roars and ear flapping, which aligns with previous descriptions of more elaborate greeting behavior in wild female elephants related or with strong social bonds. This suggests that these multimodal combinations may primarily serve to promote individual recognition and the maintenance of social bonds rather than reproductive purposes.

Future research should explore the impact of social bonds on signal use by male and female elephants in natural environments, as well as delve into the meanings and functions of different gestures and multimodal combinations in contexts involving behavioral changes in recipients.


Sources

Eleuteri, V., Bates, L., Rendle-Worthington, J. et al. Multimodal communication and audience directedness in the greeting behaviour of semi-captive African savannah elephants. Commun Biol 7, 472 (2024). doi.org/10.1038/s42003–024–06133–5


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