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Elephant With a Heart - How Elephants Communicate and Use Language

Updated on December 10, 2012

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. REFERENCE: Fascinating.

Henry Mancini's Baby Elephant Walk from Hatari!

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 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 rememberance. 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.

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.


In 2003, National Geographic News published material about the work of Joyce Poole, a researcher studying the communiucatons 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 atttached to an older, larger project begun in 1972.

REFERENCE: How Elephants Communicate.

A book has been published that contains 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.

Korean Elephant Talk

Amboseli National Park

A markerAmboseli National Park, Kenya -
Amboseli National Park, Kenya
get directions

"The Eyes of Thailand" trailer (2011)

Motala, the Survivor

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 her recovery. Pictures (some of which show Motala with a definite smile) and film footage of Motala's progress has been displayed on the Internet regularly since that time, but now a full length film is released for 2011. Motala has a prosthetic leg and is a mentor to a younger, injured elephant. Enjoy the film segments to the right.

Credits and Contacts:

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

Motala is in Lompang Province

A markerLompang Province, Thailand -
Lampang, Thailand
get directions


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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      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:


    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      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.

    • profile image

      Chi 5 years ago

      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 profile image

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

      See, this is why I like elephants.

    • Maralexa profile image

      Marilyn Alexander 5 years ago from Vancouver, Canada and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

      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 profile image

      Patty Inglish 5 years ago from North America

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

    • tlmcgaa70 profile image

      tlmcgaa70 5 years ago from south dakota, usa

      Wow, totally awesome article! I loveed the whole thing! but what caught my attention completely was the whales singing Amazing 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 profile image

      fucsia 6 years ago

      Thanks for aharing these interesting information about elephants.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

      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.

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 6 years ago from Northern, California

      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.


    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

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

      Thanks to eveyone that has commented as well.

    • Purple Perl profile image

      Purple Perl 6 years ago from Bangalore,India

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      thedutchman 6 years ago

      These article caught my interest about animals.Good job.

    • Harvey Stelman profile image

      Harvey Stelman 6 years ago from Illinois

      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 profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

      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 profile image

      Harvey Stelman 6 years ago from Illinois

      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 profile image

      Darlene Sabella 6 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      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

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      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 profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

      Thanks for visiting, Bob!

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 6 years ago from New Brunswick

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

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

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

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

      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.

    • profile image

      Gigi Thibodeau 6 years ago

      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!

    • funride profile image

      Ricardo Nunes 6 years ago from Portugal

      I ask myself how could we ever think otherwise!?

      Thanks for another remarkable hub, Patty! :)

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 6 years ago from North America

      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.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 6 years ago from UK

      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!

    • Austinstar profile image

      Austinstar 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

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

    • vox vocis profile image

      Jasmine 6 years ago

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

    • Marie McKeown profile image

      Marie McKeown 6 years ago from Ireland

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

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 6 years ago from Massachusetts

      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, profile image

      Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

      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 profile image

      William F Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      A fascinating, heartwarming story, Patty.

    • Harvey Stelman profile image

      Harvey Stelman 6 years ago from Illinois

      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

    • profile image

      Windy Borman 6 years ago

      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!


      Windy Borman

      Director/Producer, "The Eyes of Thailand"

    • BlissfulWriter profile image

      BlissfulWriter 6 years ago

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