Elephants are very vocal creatures and yet we didn't really know this until Katy Payne discovered in 1984 that much of their talk is below the threashold of human hearing. By using an acoustic array to locate the source of all calls, ELP researchers have estimated that without special electronics we can hear only about 40% of vocalizations! So there is a complexity to the interactions of elephants that a human observer would find impossible to discern without special equipment.
Elephant vocalizations, or calls, are sometimes quite powerful (90 to 117 dB Sound Pressure Level, which is equivalent to heavy truck traffic or a construction site). Such deep vocalizations are relatively rare in the animal kingdom. Because low-frequency sound attenuates very little with distance, elephants’ powerful infrasonic calls enable them to stay in contact as they move separately over large areas of savannah or forest. Playback experiments demonstrated that free-ranging savannah elephants respond to one another’s calls over at least two and probably four kilometers during daylight hours. How far forest elephants can communicate through the tropical forest is currently unknown - the complexity of an experimental test would be daunting - but certainly the calls travel long distances even in the forest.
The repertoire of elephant calls appears to be similar in all three species, but has been best studied in savannah elephants. Based on behavioral context, there are dozens of call types: of these, the majority are made by females and function in group coordination or reproduction. The social system of elephants is characterized by repeated 'fission' and 'fusion' of variously related groups of individuals organized around adult females. Powerful, low-frequency contact calls enable females to identify one another acoustically and thus coordinate with subgroups foraging separately – sometimes miles apart. This type of acoustic coordination might be particularly critical in forest elephants as subgroups move through the dense rainforest, out of sight of one another.
Much of the information on this page comes from Katy Payne's chapter in Animal Social Complexity, edited by F.B.M. de Waal and P.L. Tyack (2003).
Langbauer, Jr., W.R., Payne, K., Charif, R., Rappaport, E. and Osborn, F. 1991. African elephants respond to distant playbacks of low-frequency conspecific calls. Journal of Experimental Biology, 157: 35-46.
McComb, K., Moss, C.J., Sayialel, S. and Baker, L. 2000. Unusually extensive networks of vocal recognition in African elephants. Animal Behaviour, 59: 1103-1109.
Payne, K., Langbauer, Jr., W.R., and Thomas, E. 1986. Infrasonic calls of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 18: 297-301.
Poole, J.H., Payne, K.B., Langbauer, Jr. W.R., and Moss, C.J. 1988. The social contexts of some very low frequency calls of African elephants. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 22: 385-392.
Poole, J.H. 1999. Signals and assessment in African elephants: Evidence from playback experiments. Animal Behaviour, 58: 185-193.