Facing The Threat Together

By Mickey Pardo, Cornell University & Open University of Sri Lanka

Down the Old Mau Ara Road we drove, my head swiveling left and right as I scanned for elephants on the grassy strips to either side.  Then we rounded a bend, and Lucy slowed to a stop in front of the herd standing thirty meters away.  It was a rather large group:  [472], [873], [075], and [151], along with a number of sub-adults and juveniles.  [151] and a sub-adult female approached slowly to within a few meters of our jeep.


RAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!  With no warning, they bellowed in our faces in deafening unison!  The roars turned into a loud chorus of rumbles, with the two females overlapping their calls almost completely.  They reached across one another to put their trunks in each other’s mouth, feeling and smelling each other’s body as they did so.  The rumbles soon attracted more group members, and before long we were faced by a phalanx of rumbling elephants, their trunks crisscrossing one another as they sought an unoccupied mouth.

We stayed absolutely silent, but didn’t move.  Eventually, most of the elephants apparently lost interest in threatening us, and ambled off.  But one sub-adult female was still clearly perturbed by our existence.  She made as if to follow the rest of the group, but then turned and ran at us in a mock charge.  She pulled up short and flicked the tip of her trunk against the ground with a hollow thump, a gesture of aggression or alarm.  Then she wheeled away, squeaking softly, before stopping about ten meters from the vehicle and giving a low growl.  She repeated this process several more times, always in the same order:  mock charge, trunk-bounce, squeaks, and then growl.

This sequence of behaviors is fascinating for so many reasons.  First, the way that the females threatened our jeep as a cohesive unit is intriguing.  During the rumble chorus, [151] and the sub-adult female overlapped their vocalizations to a remarkable degree, and their calls were of very similar frequencies.  Do Asian elephants match the frequencies of their rumbles in order to cooperatively threaten a third party?  Many animals match the frequencies of one another’s calls, but depending on the species this can have anything from a strongly aggressive function to an amicable one.  Here, it seems as if the chorusing was meant to threaten us, perhaps by indicating the strength of the coalition between [151] and the sub-adult.  In addition, the way that they put their trunks in each other’s mouth seems very worthy of note.  Asian elephants do this quite frequently when greeting one another, seeking reassurance, or threatening a source of disturbance.  It seems to me that sticking your trunk in another elephant’s mouth could be a way of signaling how much you trust her, since in theory she could choose to bite the tip of your trunk and cause you serious injury.  But perhaps, this is also a signal intended for the object of the threat display (in this case, us).  If two elephants are placing their trunks in one another’s mouth, then they must have a strong social bond, and therefore might be more likely to back each other up if the standoff escalated to a fight.

Finally, was there any significance to the way that the sub-adult female attempted to menace us?  Every time she repeated her threat, the sequence of behaviors was the same.  Why was the trunk-bounce followed by the squeak, which was in turn followed by the growl?  Was this ordering a fluke, or did it mean something?  So many unanswered questions…


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3 thoughts on “Facing The Threat Together

  1. Pingback: Wildlife-Viewing is Not Thrill-Seeking | Maximus

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