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Animals With Heart - How Elephants Communicate and Use Language

Ms. Inglish has spent 30 years working in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.

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Talk Like an Elephant

We have been finding that several species of animals communicate with humans on purpose. Most recently, in March 2011, a group of dolphins alerted humans to a half-drowned dog caught on a sand bar near the shore. The dolphins raised a ruckus of vocalizations in the direction of the man and woman walking along the shoreline, until the people noticed the dog and helped.

Whales in the Atlantic Ocean learned the tune to Amazing Grace by swimming beneath the hulls of slave ships in the 1500s and hearing the inmates singing it to an African lyric. They reproduced the melody in their vocalizations of whale song and passed it to their offspring for several generations. Nearly 400 years later, in the late 1980s, scientists recorded Atlantic area whale song, factored out the static, and playing it back, listened to the tune, Amazing Grace.

Scientists, if they cannot talk to extraterrestrials through the decades-old SETI project, search out other species besides humans to speak with on earth. For example, researchers took microphones from UC-Santa Cruz and its Institute of Marine Sciences to Ano Nuevo State Park. There, they recorded the vocalizations of at least 160 elephant seals, The people hope to make logical sense of the roars, grunts, and other sounds that seem to organize elephant seal culture and protect the herd.

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It has come to light in the 2000s and 2010s that elephants also communicate and form long-term relationships. Now famous is the story of two elephants - one older, one younger - meeting up in a US animal sancutary after separation from a circus career long ago. Both female, they are now spending their retirement together with interlocked trunks and such. Elephants can cry. They not only cry, but also grieve the deaths of their companions and families, and have a tonal language of their own.

Are dolphins, whales, elephant seals, and elephants related? Evolution says that the elephant is related to a tiny, ancient shrew the size of the elephantine toe. Very hard to imagine. DNA research also proves that humans are very closely related to the sea anemone. Also hard to imagine. Returning to the original question - are dolphins and whales simply elephants-without-legs -- Or does it matter? Regardless, the species seem to have similar verbal communications schemes, and whale song does often sound to me like elephants under the waves.

elephant-with-a-heart-how-elephants-communicate-and-use-language

Elephant Grief and Remembrance

When I reviewed the new film Beastly from CBS Films, I enjoyed a scene in the movie from the local zoo. A teen couple breaks into an exhibit at night and watches a short documentary on elephants. The short features a mother elephant returning to the place where her two offspring died a year previously.

The elephant recognizes their bones from scent and spends time looking at them and handling them with the end of her trunk in grief and remembrance. Other elephants with her gather around as well. The gathering seems much like a wake and these group activities are studied long-term in Africa by animal research teams.

Toomai of the Elephants

Toomai of the Elephants

Pachyderm Grief and Celebration

In reading the Jungle Book of Rudyard Kipling, I saw that elephants have heart and spirit. Kipling wrote this in 1894, a long time before scientists waved microphones about the beaches of elephant seals. The story I reference is Toomai of the Elephants.

The young mahout (trainer) Toomai listened to the legends of the midnight elephant dance in the middle of the jungle forest late at night. Few or no people had ever seen it. Was the story true? Toomai believes that it is. It is a rare event, but he wants to see it, the magical Elephant Dance.

Older trainers attempted to take him out of trying to find it in the dangerous might jungle. However, Toomai's own elephant took him there one night, providing him with his own stories to tell. It was a celebration of dancing that seemed to appreciate life and pay tribute to absent elephant friends.

Korean Elephant Talk

Vocalizations

In 2003, National Geographic News published material about the work of Joyce Poole, a researcher studying the communicators of elephants. She had already been at the task for 27 years in the Amboseli National Park of Kenya.

At least 70 differing sounds were recorded by 2003, some with frequencies to low to be registered by human hearing. Nearly three times as many gestures and related actions were also recorded. This project was attached to an older, larger project begun in 1972.

A book has been published that contains collected data and other information from the early 1970s to the 2010s about our elephant friends. It is The Amboseli Elephants: a long-term perspective on a long-lived mammal. This is a book that never fails to move me, no matter how many times I have read it.

In November, 2008, Dr. Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices visited ARK 2000 and gave a fascinating presentation about elephant behavior and vocalization.

In Thailand, Motala, the Survivor Who Smiles

In 1999, Motala was a working elephant in Thailand, engaged in the logging industry. However, landmines had been distributed by warring factions and they were hurting elephants. Motala stepped on one, shredding her left front foot. However, her handlers guided her out of the forest as she struggled on three feet. It took three days and many miles.

She was taken to the hospital of FAE, Friends of the Asian Elephant, where she was treated. She was crying when she got there and had been for some time.

The people of Thailand collected money to send to the hospital to help Motala recover. Pictures, some of which show Motala with a definite smile, and film footage of her progress have been displayed oline regularly since that time, but a full length film was released for 2011: "The Eyes of Thailand."

Motala has a prosthetic leg and is a mentor to a younger, injured elephant.

Credits and Contacts:

  • Soraida Salwala, Head of Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE)
  • Dr. Therchai Jivacite, the Prostheses Foundation
  • FaceBook: http://facebook.com/​eyesofthailand
  • Twitter: http://twitter.com/​eyesofthailand

Motala is in Lompang Province

The annual World Elephant Day is August 12.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Patty Inglish MS

Comments

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 25, 2012:

Another note: The tune of Amazing Grace was originally an Africa song that was traditional to the people that were enslaved in the slave ships. Although the whales picked up the tune itself, the music, some people said in 1995 that the whales had learned a hymn.

Here's a report from the 1970s about whales liking to hear people singing:

www.bajasfrontiertoursDOTcom/Files/friendlywhale.htm

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on May 23, 2012:

It was in a short National Geographic article in a newspaper and on television in the mid 1990s, about 1995. It was also on radio. I found it in print in a children's magazine when I was teaching Biology and before we had the internet. I should have kept that one.

Chi on May 23, 2012:

While I totally believe and witness that other living creatures are sentient, have feelings, and communicate, I was unable to find any documentation to substantiate whales learning Amazing Grace tune, and passing it to multiple generations. If you have that data, PLEASE share it!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on December 11, 2011:

See, this is why I like elephants.

Marilyn Alexander from Vancouver, Canada on December 11, 2011:

Hello Patty. This is another superb hub and one that touches my heart. When researching for my hub on African Elephants vs Ivory, I learned that elephants are altruistic. One female elephant "babysat" another elephant's calf while mother was unable to do so. There was no reward in this, just one elephant helping another. Amazing and very humbling.

Thanks for another really fine hub!

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on September 23, 2011:

Only in a science lab somewhere, as far as I know. Thanks for commenting

tlmcgaa70 from south dakota, usa on September 23, 2011:

Wow, totally awesome article! I loveed the whole thing! but what caught my attention completely was the whales singing Amazing Grace...do you know if there is a recording of it anywhere? I would so love to hear that. Thank you for this terrific, very well written hub...Outstanding!

fucsia on April 01, 2011:

Thanks for aharing these interesting information about elephants.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 01, 2011:

Elephants made a big impression on me when, as a young child, I saw two elephants were among the very few animals left at the zoo before Jack Hanna took over.

India Arnold from Northern, California on April 01, 2011:

No better article has been written on the majesty of these grand beasts. Elephants should be treasured and loved, nothing else. With such big hearts it is no wonder that their grieving is so deep. Up and awesome Patty.

K9

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 24, 2011:

That story is wonderful to share, Purple Perl - Thanks many times over!

Thanks to eveyone that has commented as well.

Esther Shamsunder from Bangalore,India on March 24, 2011:

In India, tamed elephants being put to work in the forest or in temple festivities, are looked after by a mahout who does everything for the elephant and they share a deep bond between them. When a mahout dies or is changed because of ill health, the elephant is known to grieve and refuse food for days.

Many Indian movies were made in yester years, where elephants communicated with the characters in the film and always helped in bringing the criminals to justice.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 22, 2011:

Thank you for a fascinating hub. The information about elephant communication and an artificial limb for Motala was very interesting. I suspect that elephant intelligence and social life is far more complex than we realize.

thedutchman on March 21, 2011:

These article caught my interest about animals.Good job.

Harvey Stelman from Illinois on March 20, 2011:

Patty, The guy stood directly behind the elephant after giving him a laxative. The elephant let loose, and the man sufficated under a ton of it. Sad, but how stupid can one be. H

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 20, 2011:

No, but we had a male elephant at Columbus Zoo that was unhappy and threw ding at certain staff members. I hope he was transferred to a retirement sanctuary for elephants.

Harvey Stelman from Illinois on March 19, 2011:

Patty, Not to be gross, but did you ever see the video of the elephant handler that gave an elephant a laxative. He then stood behind him. Opps, I think I gave it away. H

Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on March 19, 2011:

Wow Patty, what an excellent hub, you are a true proffissonal write, you write to well, I love your subject just as much. So happy I found you...rate this up, love & peace darski

Susan Hazelton from Sunny Florida on March 19, 2011:

Patty, great information, fascinating. I love the videos. So much information about elephants that I never knew. I had no clue that they formed such long term relationships, grieved and cry.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 18, 2011:

Thanks for visiting, Bob!

Bob Ewing from New Brunswick on March 18, 2011:

I have always found elephants fascinating and so obviously intelligent, great hub, thanks.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 18, 2011:

Gigi - I'll keeo a close eye on the Korean elephant for more info.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 18, 2011:

Thanks funride. Did you ever read about Irene Pepperberg's parrot that cound answer questions? He got to the end of a string of them and refused to give the correct answer. He answered anything but the correct one. Irene gave him a time out and when she got him out of the cage again, he immediately said "Sorry" and stated the right answer.

Gigi Thibodeau on March 18, 2011:

This is a fantastic hub, and I loved the videos you included as well. I was intrigued by the elephant at the Korean zoo who vocalizes Korean words, and I was thrilled to learn about Motala's prosthetic leg. Great stuff, voted up!

Ricardo Nunes from Portugal on March 18, 2011:

I ask myself how could we ever think otherwise!?

Thanks for another remarkable hub, Patty! :)

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on March 18, 2011:

Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on these fantastic animals. I love all your comments and observations. We have hope if we have these thoughts.

Windy! - I hope to see this film and purchases a DVD of it in the future. Thank you for making it! I love Motala and the little girl who grew up to make a hospital.

Mohan Kumar from UK on March 18, 2011:

Fascinating subject. I grew up in South India and have visited elephant reserves in Kerala- they were part of our life growing up and we have a lot of local stories on how wise they are and how they use memory maps... Brilliant hub as usual. voted up!

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on March 18, 2011:

Dolphins, elephants and many other animals have tried to communicate with humans. If only we would listen!

Jasmine on March 18, 2011:

Awesome article! I never thought about animal communication before. It all makes perfect sense. Nice to have learned sth new :)

Marie McKeown from Ireland on March 18, 2011:

Thanks for sharing such fascinating information about this beautiful creature. And I never knew that about the whales either. Very informative hub - much appreciated!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on March 18, 2011:

Hi Patty, it is so awesome that they are finding animals communicate with humans, animals are so amazing . But sometimes all we have to do is stop,look and listen at what our animal friends are trying to tell us,and we may even learn something, i know i have from all the dogs i have owned

Awesome and vote up !!!

Hello, hello, from London, UK on March 18, 2011:

Thank you,Patty, for bringing it all to our attention. When will mankind learn? Most properly when it is too late. They are so wonderful and yet they are an endangered species.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on March 17, 2011:

A fascinating, heartwarming story, Patty.

Harvey Stelman from Illinois on March 17, 2011:

Patty, Another great job! My favorite story is the memory of the elephant. During a drought a heard folled the matriarch of the family to find water. She led them for a few weeks using her memory on where she went once, years ago.

Before finding water a young elephant died. All elephants line up, and one at a time smelled the dead elephant. After that they lined up facing the dead one, they all made the same loud noise (it was like a funeral). Moving on they found some remains of a dead elephant. They stopped, and smelled the remains. Those that knew the smell of the dead one, lned up and made the same noise. Elephant's never forget! H

Windy Borman on March 17, 2011:

Thank you for including FAE, the Prostheses Foundation and the link to my documentary, "The Eyes of Thailand". We've been following Soraida, Mosha and Motala since 2007 and it was wonderful to film the elephants taking their first steps on their prostheses!

Best,

Windy Borman

Director/Producer, "The Eyes of Thailand"

BlissfulWriter on March 17, 2011:

This is excellent writing. So many interesting facts. Good video finds too.