Body language of elephants

Understanding elephant behaviour, by Audrey Delsink, extracted with permission from the new 480-page book The Last Elephants.

Elephants are intelligent and emotional and they want to be left in peace. Like humans, they have a personal space which they do not like invaded. Remember you are in their territory. They always have right of way. Elephants appreciate silence, patience and slow, consistent movements. Respect for the animals and common sense must always prevail. For your own safety, it’s important to read their body language.

Standing tall (threat behaviour)

Standing or moving with head held well above shoulders, chin is raised and the elephant looks down at her adversary over her tusks with eyes-open stare and ears maximally forward. The animal appears to increase in height and sometimes will deliberately stand upon an object such as a log or anthill in order to increase its height. Elephants normally stand or move about with their eyes cast down. A direct gaze with eyes-open is a component of many displays. A posture, with the chin raised as opposed to tucked in looking down over the tusks, is mainly used by females in challenge towards non- elephant threats, such as predators and people, as in: I’ve got you in my sights, so watch it.

Head-shake (threat behaviour)

An abrupt shaking of the head, which causes the ears to flap sharply and dust to fly, is a sign of an individual’s annoyance with or disapproval of an individual or circumstance. The head-shake usually starts with the head twisted to one side and then is rapidly rotated from side to side. The ears slap against the side of the face or neck making a loud smacking sound. It can also be used in play to feign annoyance. Head-jerking (a single, upward movement followed by a slower return) and head-tossing (the head is lowered and then lifted sharply so that the tusks make an arc) are also mild threat displays.

Ear-spreading (threat Behaviour)

Facing an opponent or predator head on with ears fully spread (at 90 degrees to body) presumably for the purpose of appearing larger. Elephants may also spread their ears when they’re excited, surprised or alarmed.

Forward-trunk-swing (threat behaviour)

A swinging or tossing of the trunk in the direction of an adversary, typically while blowing forcefully out through the trunk. Elephants swing their trunks at other smaller animals (e.g. egrets, ground hornbills, warthogs and people) to frighten them away or simply for amusement. A high-intensity version of the forward-trunk-swing is the aggressive-whoosh made by musth males, who toss or swing their trunk in an exaggerated manner in the direction of an adversary while blowing loudly through the trunk with a loud whooshing.

Throw-debris (threat behaviour)

Lifting or uprooting objects and using the trunk to throw them in the direction of an opponent or predator. This display may also be observed in play. An elephant’s aim can be very accurate even at some distance.

Bush-bash (threat behaviour)

Tossing the head and tusks back and forth through bushes or other vegetation, creating noise and commotion and demonstrating strength. It’s probably an expression of ‘look what I can do with you’, but is also used in play.

Tusk-ground (threat behaviour)

Bending or kneeling down and tusking the ground and uplifting vegetation as a demonstration of ‘look what I will do with you’. It’s usually seen during the manoeuvring between two males during an escalated contest, but may also be directed towards people, especially by musth males. In some cases, tusking the ground may be a form of redirected aggression. A similar action is seen during play. In play, too, tusking the ground may be directed towards human observers. In females, a vigorous scraping/trampling or tusking of the ground following the birth of a calf may be observed.

Trunk-twisting (apprehensive)

Twisting the tip of the trunk back and forth in situations where an elephant is apprehensive or unsure of what action to take.

Distant-frontal-attitude (play or submission)

In expectant or playful situations, pausing with the trunk up in a periscope or S-shape waiting for an adversary, duelling or a play partner’s next move. As two individuals approach one another with intent to duel or spar, one or both may raise its trunk above its head and curl the tip towards the other individual. Except for context, this display appears very similar in form to periscope-sniff.

Touch-face (apprehensive)

Self-directed touching of the face, apparently for reassurance, very often in the context of interaction with another elephant, may also be seen in any situation where an elephant feels uneasy. Touch-face includes self-touching of mouth, face, ear, trunk, tusk or temporal gland.

Foot-swinging (apprehensive)

Raising and holding or tentatively swinging the foreleg intermittently when unsure of what action to take. Swinging of the hind foot may also be observed, although this is less common than the forefoot.

Displacement-feeding (apprehensive)

Plucking at vegetation, as if foraging, but without actually eating any of the material, is monitoring behaviour. If it does eat, it does so in a desultory or distracted fashion. The elephant may also slap vegetation against a foot or other part of its body. It is performed in conflict situations such as during fighting or sparring, or when an individual shows incompatible tendencies such as fleeing vs fighting. Can also be defensive or despondent. It is also often displayed by young males near an oestrous female that are pretending to do something else so as not to provoke aggression by the guarding male.

Real-charge (aggressive behaviour)

Rushing towards a predator or other adversary while ear-spreading, head raised or lowered with the apparent intention of following through. The trunk may be slightly curved under so that tusks can make contact first. A real-charge is usually silent.

Mock-charge (threat behaviour)

Rushing towards an adversary or predator with standing-tall and ear-spreading that stops short of its target. An elephant may forward-trunk-swing or aggressively kick dust as it abruptly stops. A mock-charge is often associated with a shrill trumpet blast.

This article is an extract, used with permission, from The Last Elephants, compiled by Colin Bell and Don Pinnock. At 480 pages, The Last Elephants is undoubtably the most comprehensive book on African elephants ever published, with 42 chapters looking at their status across the continent, threats to their survival, conservation work and their behaviour. A remarkable collection of images, from a multitude of photographers, bring a strong visual element to the book. This is a very impressive production, and will be a must-have for all wildlife lovers. Buy your copy using this link.

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