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Click play and you can listen to the sound an elephant makes. How would you describe it? A trumpet? A snort? A rumble?
All three would be correct because elephants can make a huge array of sounds, some of them at a low frequency that humans are unable to hear.
In this article we explore all the different elephant sounds and what they mean. Then you can find out where to experience an elephant orchestra in the wild!
What sound does an elephant make?
Elephants make a variety of sounds including rumbling and trumpeting.
Trumpeting is created by pushing air through the trunk and is used when an elephant is highly stimulated.
Rumbling is the regular form of communication with each other.
Elephants also make roaring sounds, barks, grunts, snorts and can also imitate other sounds.
Understand: What different sounds can an elephant make? And what do they mean?
There’s no wild sound to rival that of an elephant orchestra. Different pachyderms start trumpeting at the same time, and soon it’s a brass band of noise that echoes far into the distance.
Trumpeting is the elephant’s most recognisable sound, certainly to our ears. They emit it when they are stimulated. Sometimes it’s because they are excited and playful. However, trumpeting is also used when an elephant is lost, angry or surprised.
You can compare trumpeting to people shouting. It’s a noise you make when excited or annoyed, but it could mean many different things. Like shouting, trumpeting is a way for elephants to warn others and get others to notice you. It’s usually a sharp, high-pitched sound that continues for a couple of seconds.
For example, an elephant will do a short trumpet blast to alert the herd to a lion in the nearby bush. Or when one of the pachyderms is really annoyed they will make a long trumpet sound to warn everything around: they are coming through and they’re not stopping!
And like we do with shouting, it’s the sound that elephants make when they are super happy and playful. Elephants will run around, blowing their trumpets and swinging their trunks. It’s just like a school yard full of children running around and shouting.
Most mammals make noises with their larynx, or voice box as it is also known. Elephants do as well. However, the trumpet sound is produced when elephants push air through their trunk.
Trumpeting is the most famous and recognisable sound from an elephant’s vocabulary, its high-pitched tone heard for miles around. However, most elephant sounds are actually rumbles. These low-frequency sounds can travel over long distances and are used for everyday communication.
Turn the bass up on your speakers or headphones because rumbling is a beautifully resonant sound, a little like a cat purring but deeper and more sonorous. Rumbling is created by the larynx and is used to convey messages with fellow elephants.
Some elephant rumbles are at too low a frequency for the human ear to pick up. These low frequencies travel the longest distances and are used for this reason, helping the elephants communicate with other elephants that are far away.
When males are searching for a mate they emit a pulsating musth rumble. Females respond with their own estrous rumbles, making them as loud as possible so they can alert more males.
There are many different rumbles used for greetings and to persuade the herd to do something. In the wild you can sometimes hear many elephants rumbling at once, which means they are having a conversation and deciding what to do, or making a greeting with each other.
You can also hear social rumbling when elephants are upset, such as when one of their herd has died.
A sharp high-pitched trumpet is usually enough to scare away a lion or get a safari vehicle to move. That sound may be combined with rumbling, which could be interpreted as a call for help. However, when elephants don’t get their way they can also roar.
Roaring is a highly powerful rumble that does sound like a roar. It’s often complemented by a trumpet blast. Elephants will only use this sound in an emergency, such as defending against predators or warning off a rival herd.
Snorts and grunts
Some researchers have argued that elephants make snorting and grunting sounds. These are produced using the trunk and sound a lot like the trumpet.
Chirps and squeaks
African elephants cannot make the soft chirping and squeaking sounds produced by Asian elephants. Nobody understands why but it’s probably due to the range of vocalisations made possible by the larynx.
Elephants have the ability to imitate their peers. So if one elephant makes a particular low-frequency rumble they can copy it and respond with one of their own.
More fun facts about elephants
Do elephants run? Even though they can reach speeds of up to 40 km/h these giants don’t necessarily run, but just walk very fast. Find out more about how fast an elephant can run here.
The biggest African elephants can weigh over 7 tons, that’s 15,000 pounds! When a baby is born it weighs around 90 kgs and is already one meter tall. Creating such a mammoth-sized baby is difficult – elephants have a pregnancy that’s longer than almost every other mammal, a whopping 22 months.
Studies have shown that elephants have a favourite tusk. Just like we are right handed or left handed, elephants are right tusked or left tusked, using their favourite side when fighting a rival or stripping bark from trees.
Where to listen to African elephants in the wild
Lying back in the tent you listen to the wild. Trumpets. You can tell elephants are close by, but it’s far too dark outside to see them. Through the night you also hear rumbles, another piece of the nighttime lullaby.
Then waking up the next day you see the elephant dung and ripped up trees. The giants were very close. You set off on a game drive and you encounter the herd. As much as it’s a beautiful sight, it’s also a beautiful sound. Low-pitched rumbles, the odd alert trumpet, perhaps a cacophony of elephants communicating together.
There are over 400,000 wild African elephants and this number has come down from 5 million in the 1940s. Because they are so big they are relatively easy to see and hear. However, elephants have large ranges and can’t be found at every safari destination.
Chobe National Park in Botswana is home to the world’s largest elephant population. Many of these elephants migrate to parks nearby, such as Hwange in Zimbabwe.
Tarangire National Park has the largest elephant population in Tanzania, with herds of up to 300 rumbling and trumpeting near the riverbed.
In Kenya’s Amboseli National Park you can witness elephants beneath the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
You can use our safari planning pages to help make your elephant dream a reality. Or use a specialist who will plan your elephant lovers safari.