EleFact Friday: Elephant Communication and Understanding

We know that elephants are an intelligent species, wise in emotional wellness and mental cognition. Recently we received a question regarding language and how much they can understand Scott when he speaks to them in the videos we share. Let’s dive in and explore for today’s EleFACT! 

We’ve actually written about an aspect of this topic before, examining a study done where elephants seemed to physically differentiate and respond between two different types of voices – simply put, voices of friends or foes. Studies have also shown that elephants have the ability to imitate sounds that they hear. There are cases of Asian elephants mimicking overheard sounds of African elephants or even vehicles that are passing by. Elephants can seemingly distinguish between the low frequency sounds of different herds. Wild elephants who travel with individual family units are able to understand the difference in the family calls. 

We know that the recall and memory abilities of elephants are impressive due to their large hippocampus’ and cerebral cortex. In theory, the size of these neurological structures could certainly aid in an animal’s ability to understand language. When the sanctuary elephants are trained to participate in activities like foot care, it can certainly be said that their memories play a part in the success of raising or placing their feet where they need to go based on verbal and physical cues. 

Like in human communication, elephants and human understanding of one another is not just limited to the words we use. Body language, tone, intention, and context are necessary for successful transmission of information. The same applies to animals of all species: even the pets that you have in your own home can certainly tell the difference between a kind and gentle tone compared to a harsh, more serious one. Communication is something that may never be totally explainable in the elephant community, but we definitely know that both their emotional and linguistic understanding is far greater than we may see.

Photo of Lady and her lovely ears


  1. REPLY
    Sherry says

    Anything with a brain that large is smart!

  2. REPLY
    Sheila says

    ❤MZ LADY🐘

  3. REPLY
    Alejandra Enquin says

    Hermosa Lady Superinteligente y Superdulce!!! Te amamos asi con tu personal forma de ser.y a tus hermanas Maia Guille Mara Bambi y Rana que son adorables con cerebros brillantes y corazones amorosos

  4. REPLY
    Carey says

    Thank you for this. True, communication is a huge subject and comes in many non verbal forms also. I just learned of the 28 calls known to be urban foxes in UK, and how the call that sends the hairs up on the back of your neck is a call by a female during her short 3 day fertility period in mid winter to all males foxes in the area. Fox Guardians has put up a tape recording. Isn’t there also one that’s been done for African elephants? Re Lady, it occurred to me that what she has now in the yards and in her care just exactly what she needs, she doesn’t need as much socialising as some of the others. When you learn her background and it’s torture on so many levels it’s extraordinary that she allows what ever communication she does, and agrees to trust her caregivers who are finally in the last years of her life helping her. I’ve forgotten whether she communicates verbally with the elephants or with her human care givers?

    • REPLY
      Kat Blais says

      ElephantVoices has a database for African elephant communication on their website. And yes, Lady does communicate with people and other elephants. When the girls are closer, and have their little rumble parties, she often joins in. ☺️

  5. REPLY
    Chris Wilkinson says

    Just found out about your Sanctuary after visiting many in Thailand. They are all just recovering from the lack of tourist dollars with Covid. There is hope.
    Thank you for all that you do, I would like to follow your amazing animals.

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