An ambitious directory of elephant behaviours and vocalisations offers amazing insights into their minds and culture – and could help save these magnificent beasts from extinction
3 November 2021
A HERD of around 40 elephants processes across open grassland in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park. Led by a matriarch named Valente, they are headed towards a newly felled tree, a potential food source. The tree is out of sight: perhaps the elephants detected vibrations from the impact through their feet. That’s cool, and the procession is impressive – but elephant scientist Joyce Poole isn’t sure why this particular video went viral. Since May, she and her husband Petter Granli have been posting clips of elephants daily on social media, and others are far cuter or odder.
The duo are co-founders of a US-based non-profit organisation called ElephantVoices, and these videos are part of a project they have been working on for the past five years. Called the Elephant Ethogram, it is a freely available online library of elephant behaviours and vocalisations, along with their meanings. Since it went live, Poole and Granli have been inundated with messages expressing wonder and gratitude.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The human desire to decipher other animals is ancient, and science has recently brought that dream closer – through, for example, the use of artificial intelligence to start decoding the vocalisations of whales and birds. The Elephant Ethogram is less flashy, but far more impressive. Andrew Whiten, who studies animal behaviour at the University of St Andrews, UK, calls it a “staggering achievement”. It is probably the most ambitious ethogram ever created. As well as giving …
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