Trumpets, rumbles and fatty foot pads


Like all highly social mammals, elephants have a well-developed system of communicating with one another. In addition to possessing large ears for acute hearing (and cooling their blood) and prehensile trunks for smelling, and gathering food, these giants communicate by using all their senses including sound, sight, touch and smell. They can even detect vibrations with their feet.  (And if you have ever wondered how they can move SO silently through the bush, they have a massive fat pad under their heels – so if you were looking at an x-ray of their foot bones, it looks like they are walking on tippy toe!)

(And if you have ever wondered how they can move SO silently through the bush, they have a massive fat pad under their heels – so if you were looking at an x-ray of their foot bones, it looks like they are walking on tippy toe!)

Have you ever wondered how elephants communicate with each other amongst themselves (and other groups), how they locate each other when they get displaced and how males locate females for potential mating partners?

The most common way they communicate is by using vocal calls. Which they use for everything from caring for the calves, reconciling differences during disagreements and to coordinate the group’s next move. These sounds or vocalisations are known as rumbles. Usually when elephants move on from one place to the other, one of them (if not the matriarch), will emit a deep rumble, this rouses the whole group to get moving in the direction the matriarch chooses to go.

Here is a sample of how those rumbles sound:

As they communicate through seismic waves, a discovery has shown that most of the elephant language exists in a range that humans can’t even hear. These low-frequency sounds, termed as infrasound, can travel several kilometres. The deepest sounds we, as humans, can hear, are the rumbles they make but the infrasonic sounds (which we cannot hear) are so low and powerful, they travel unhindered for kilometres, allowing elephants to send messages and warnings over long distances.

Elephants have a wide range of calls and signals for different purposes. The famous shrill trumpet call an elephant makes, is one we most often associate with them, when they trumpet an alarm, or in  displeasure at us being too close.  They can also cry, scream, roar, snort, rumble, bark or groan to get their point across. These sounds can be soft, abrasive, low-pitched or shrilling.  But of all the calls in the elephant repertoire, deep growling or rumbling noises are, by far, the most common. It has been said that each individual elephant has its own signature rumble!

They convey information about their physiological (e.g. sexual/hormonal body condition, identity) and emotional state (e.g. whether they are fearful, playful, joyful, angry, excited) as well as communicating specific statements about their intentions or desires. . One rumble means “Hallo, I’m here” another, “Help, I’m lost” – important messages for helping separated family groups find each other

These powerful, distant-travelling sounds (while still being studied) may be critical in helping males find females for breeding. The infrasonic call, according to studies, also enable elephants to reunite with family and friends. There is even a place for jackhammer-like ear splitting blasts as a danger or alarm call to signal others to form a protective circle around the young, injured or vulnerable elephants, which are susceptible to attacks by lions and sometimes hyenas.

Elephants seeking to make contact with distant family members, let out a powerful, reverberating sound also known as a “contact call” after which it will lift its head to listen for a response. Once a response is heard, it emits an explosive sound. The pattern is repeated, possibly for hours, until successfully reunited with its family. Any reunion or greeting ceremony, as it is called, is met with an exuberant greeting and marked by trumpeting, screaming and rumbling.

Vocalisations are essential for the mating season. Males, with their solitary life, rely on calls to announce their sexual state, identity and rank. When a male is in musth or a female is in oestrus, elephants can detect hormones or chemical molecules in the urine, dung, and in secretions from the temporal glands, and mouth that mirror the individual’s physiological state.  In this state males may display a musth-walk, in which they hold their heads high, wave their ears and stride purposefully with a rolling swagger. (I know humans do that, too – without the ear wiggle of course – and I have seen many a rolling swagger or a sexy sashay, sending the same message!!)

Elephant may be able to get information they need by simply touching, caressing or sniffing each other with their trunks, which also helps elephants maintain their social bonds.

They are also masters at reading each other’s body language and communicate visually using a diverse range of postures, gestures and displays. To create their gestures, elephants use their heads, eyes, mouths, ears & trunks, tails,  feet and entire bodies.  Some of the most obvious visual displays of communication can be observed when elephants attempt to demonstrate their strength and establish dominance. They may also shake their heads, swing their trunks and charge during threat displays.

Testing their strength

It is such a thrill to quietly watch a herd of elephants stroll by or listen to them trumpeting in the distance! At Royal Jozini we offer guests an empowering tapestry of experiences that come together to reconnect guests with the rhythm of nature – and from September 2022, we shall have a 14 seater Unimog and all guests will experience a 4 hour “elephanting” drive with our ranger and elephant monitor.  Contact Lynda to come to stay at Royal Jozini to experience this!