We have been analysing African elephant vocalisations to determine whether they could be used by males to recognise one another. African elephants produce rumbles – long, low frequency sounds that elephants use in various contexts (see image below). We recorded these vocalisations from wild animals and over a long period of time. With specialised software, we can extract various parameters from these sounds and then compare the vocalisations produced by individuals to establish whether each elephant produces a distinct rumble and if they are stable over time. If that is the case, it is likely that individuals can recognise one another through the sounds the produce.
A spectrogram view (a visual representation of a sound) of a male African elephant rumble.
Recognition is important for social, long-lived species, such as elephants, as it allows animals to adjust their behaviour towards given individuals based on past encounters. This is helpful for establishing and maintaining bonds, associations and hierarchy. It is particularly useful for male elephants, as they compete for various resources (food, females) which can often result in aggressive fights. Knowing which animals are in the vicinity, by recognising their vocalisations at a distance, can help avoid potentially lethal encounters.
We are hoping to have the results of this fascinating research published soon!