VIDEO: Amazing view of entire elephant family greeting newborn calf

Watch the author’s video above, as the OA family greet their newest addition, a healthy baby boy.

Elephant greetings are special.

Witnessing them always makes me smile, because of the clear joy elephants take in being with one another. These displays of excited behaviour serve an important function.

Elephant society is a fission-fusion system; individuals with important relationships can separate (the “fission”) and then re-join one another (the “fusion”).

This flexibility allows elephants to manage competition when resources are scarce, but maintain close relationships with family members and friends.

To reinforce relationships after a period of separation, reuniting elephants greet one another. Greetings operate on every modality – sight, sound, smell and touch.

As with all elements of elephant behaviour, greetings are flexible and vary in the strength of the various signals used. That variation depends on the elephants involved, and the amount of time they have been separated for.

Sight – elephants hold their heads high and spread their ears,

Sound – special greeting-rumbles, the upper harmonics of which are audible to humans, can escalate into trumpets.

Elephants “talk” to each other almost constantly, emitting low-pitched rumbles that go back and forth between family members as they feed and travel and go about their day. Their voices, like ours, are individually distinct, and each adult female recognises about 100 other females by voice alone.

I have to say, that’s better than I could do without caller ID on my phone. 

;)

So calling with greeting rumbles is a chorus of hellos between reunited friends...

Smell – elephants stream from their temporal glands (located behind the eye), releasing a rich mixture of volatile compounds that evaporate into a cloud of scent information. These compounds contain hormone metabolites signalling individual identity, reproductive state and emotional state (stress hormones such as cortisol). Elephants may also urinate and defecate during greeting.

Touch – greeting elephants rub bodies together, touch faces and mouths and temporal glands. Very excited greetings involve individuals rushing together, clicking tusks and holding each others’ heads high while rumbling.

“Full-throttle” greetings are touching and special.

Some families greet far more frequently than others, but since I decided I want to film this behaviour for a blog post, I hadn’t seen any greetings worth of the name.

I had almost given up, when I found Omo River from the OA family, all alone and very tired and anxious, having just given birth.

She was right to be anxious – four hyenas were fighting over the afterbirth a few hundred metres away, and she and the new calf were vulnerable if they stayed alone.

Omo River was heading in the direction I had sighted the rest of the family earlier, but very slowly and hesitantly, pausing often to stop and listen. She even seemed worried by the research car, which had never bothered her before. Although this wasn’t her first calf, it must have been a particularly tiring birth.

I decided to keep my distance, and wait to see what would happen. It took some patience, but after almost an hour I was between Omo River and the rest of the family.

The matriarch of the OA family is Omo River’s mother, Orabel.

She is forty seven years old, and her experience really shines through sometimes.

Watch the video above to see why we think she is such a wonderful mother and matriarch.

Elephants at their very best.

--VF

For more information about why IFAW supports Vicki and the work of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, visit our project page.

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