Do you speak elephant? With this new dictionary, you

An ambitious repertoire of elephant behaviors and vocalizations offers amazing insight into their minds and culture – and could help save these magnificent beasts from extinction


November 3, 2021

A young man shakes his head, announcing he is in musth, a period of increased libido


A HERD of around 40 elephants roam the open grasslands of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Led by a matriarch named Valente, they make their way to a newly felled tree, a potential source of food. The tree is out of sight: maybe the elephants have sensed vibrations of the impact through their feet. It’s cool, and the procession is impressive – but elephant scientist Joyce Poole doesn’t know why this particular video has gone viral. Since May, she and her husband Petter Granli have been posting elephant clips on social media daily, and others are much cuter or weirder.

The duo are co-founders of a US-based nonprofit called ElephantVoice, and these videos are part of a project they’ve been working on for the past five years. Called the Elephant ethogram, this is a free online library of elephant behaviors and vocalizations, and their meanings. Since it went live, Poole and Granli have been inundated with messages expressing wonder and gratitude.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The human desire to decipher other animals is ancient, and science has recently brought that dream closer – for example, through the use of artificial intelligence to start decoding the vocalizations of whales and birds. The Ethogram Elephant is less flashy, but much more impressive. Andrew Whiten, who studies animal behavior at the University of St Andrews in the UK, calls this a “staggering achievement”. It is probably the most ambitious ethogram ever created. In addition to giving …

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