In response to several recent videos of happy elephants with flapping ears, we’ve received a few questions about the particular ear movements that the girls may be showing off. We know that elephants’ large ears help keep them cool (and keep bugs away) but did you know that certain movements can be used as a form of communication as well?
Quite a wide range of emotions can be conveyed through the ears of an elephant. In some videos, especially when the girls are hanging out together, you may see some rapid ear flapping. These energetic movements are common when elephants are greeting or bonding with each other, either in moments of leisure (like at sanctuary) or when wild elephants may group together to face a threat. It’s a sign of trust and strengthening social bonds, so we’re always happy to see quick, happy ears at sanctuary. You may have also seen videos where the ears look more flat or folded against the heads of the elephants at the sanctuary. This may be a sign of calm submission, or showing trust. Folded ears can indicate a more serious situation, or can be used as a submissive greeting as well.
Although less likely seen in our videos but still worth mentioning, you may have seen other videos of elephants spreading their ears, keeping them extended at a right angle to their bodies. This movement is used to appear large and more imposing, or in response to something that is surprising to them. It could be a sign that they are just calmly and attentively listening for something. It’s also important to note that actions can mean different things between elephant species. Like many things, what is normal communication between African elephants could mean something completely different to Asian elephants.
Elephant ears can also be used to communicate tactically or acoustically. You may see the sanctuary girls brush their ears against each other, which can be used as a greeting, bond strengthening, or to pacify and comfort one another. In the wild, louder ear flaps are used, particularly by adult females, to signal to the herd that they are about to move or relocate to another area, making sure that everyone follows. Louder flaps can also be used to signal aggression or more serious nature among different elephants.
Like many species, elephants have found their own ways to communicate with one another, some of which we understand and some that still remain a mystery. To learn more about different movements and what they mean, please check out Elephant Voices’ Elephant Ethogram: https://www.elephantvoices.org/elephant-communication.html