A Digital Archive Could Show Us What Elephants Have to Say

Its goals include education and preservation

A group of elephants enjoying the water.
Richard Jacobs/Unsplash

What does it mean to be able to communicate with another species? For decades, scientists have sought a way to, for all intents and purposes, talk with chimpanzees and dolphins. A new digital archive has a different sort of creature in mind — namely, elephants. The Elephant Ethogram chronicles the behavior, gestures and sounds of the African savanna elephant. It’s a substantial research effort, and the applications of it are massive, both literally and figuratively.

Writing at Scientific American, Rachel Nuwer explored the origins of the Ethogram and explained what its applications could be. First things first, though — it’s probably worth explaining just what an ethogram is. The project’s website describes it as “a library, or master list, of all known behaviors for a species that describes the characteristics and, where possible, the function of each behavior.”

The records that make up the Elephant Ethogram encompass over 100 years of scientific inquiry. Joyce Poole, the project’s co-director, explained to Nuwer that the impetus behind the ethogram’s creation was to raise awareness of the plight of the species.

“At a time when biodiversity is plummeting and the lives of elephants are being heavily impacted by humans, we also want to spell out to the world what we stand to lose,” Poole told Scientific American.

Nuwer writes that the project currently documents “more than 500 behaviors depicted through nearly 3,000 annotated videos, photographs and audio files.” It’s a rich trove for anyone fascinated by elephants — and, hopefully, a way to spark interest in keeping the species safe and thriving for years to come.

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