Elephants are extremely intelligent. They are able to adapt to new conditions, react to human interference and human presence. The high level of intelligence can also be seen in the degree of social interaction and contact you see between individuals, the subtle nature of their communication and the generally close-knit structure of the elephant community. For example, an elephant does not necessarily have to ‘raise its voice’. Communication can be a twitch of a tail, a swish of the ears, through different kinds of stance, moving its head or twirling its trunk.
The sensory capabilities of elephants are specific in their extremely well-innervated trunks and their exceptional sense of hearing and smell. The hearing resides not only in the ears but also in the trunk, which is sensitive to vibrations; and most significantly the feet that have special receptors for low-frequency sound and are exceptionally well innervated.
‘Verbal’ communication in elephants comprises of a variety of trumpets, rumbles and ‘screams’. However, much of elephant communication is infrasonic, which means that the sounds fall below the human level of hearing and can travel over 20-30 kilometres. These sounds have been linked to a throbbing vibration and a fluttering of the skin on the forehead of the elephant. Elephants have been observed listening by putting their trunks on the ground and carefully moving their sensitive feet. To listen attentively, the whole herd may lift one leg off the ground and face the source of the sound.
Physical contact between elephants is also an important means of communication. Animals are seen to rub against each other and touch trunks. Communication can also be chemical. Elephants show a high level of interest in the urine of other animals. A male elephant can tell when a female elephant is ready to mate by ‘tasting’ her urine. He will inhale the scent of her urine with his trunk and then blow it over two small holes in the palate of his mouth. This Jacobson’s gland or vominasal is able to detect changes in the hormones of females, allowing the male to pinpoint the exact time to mate with the female.