A loud roar or just a silent wagging of the ears: African elephants’ greeting depends on whether they see the person arriving or not.

This was the conclusion reached by a team led by first author Vesta Eleuteri from the University of Vienna, who examined nine African savanna elephants in a reserve in Zimbabwe. According to this, the pachyderms use different types of movements such as ear flaps and trumpet-like sounds when greeting each other to recognize each other and promote social bonds. The study was published in the journal “Communications Biology.”

Previous studies had already shown that animals communicate using sounds, gestures, facial expressions or smell signals. Elephants were also known to perform different greeting rituals upon encounter. However, it was previously unclear whether this was intentional communication. Therefore, the team examined the greeting behavior of African elephants (Loxodonta africana) during about 90 meetings.

Greetings can vary depending on the relationship

When they came together, the pachyderms greeted each other with rumbling, roaring and trumpet-like noises, and they also flapped their ears or spread them out. In more than 70 percent of cases, so-called olfactory behavior also occurred, i.e. the animals communicated through smells, such as urination, defecation and temporal gland secretions. According to the study, olfactory communication is probably supported by ear wagging and tail wagging.

The elephants also change their communication depending on whether they were visible to their counterpart or not. “When their partner is watching them, elephants stretch or swing their trunks or even extend their ears. However, if there is no eye contact, they touch the other person or use gestures that produce sounds,” explained first author Eleuteri. This suggests that most gestures performed during greeting are goal-directed movements. It was said that the animals’ communication was intentional.

The study also showed that greetings can vary depending on the relationship. For example, the females particularly often greeted each other with ear flaps and a deep growling noise.