The Elephant Ethogram: a library of African elephant behaviour


  • Joyce Poole
  • Petter Granli ElephantVoices


This short paper is intended to alert our colleagues to the existence of The Elephant Ethogram: A Library of African Elephant Behaviour. It describes its purpose, form and scope, and appeals for contributions of undocumented, rare, novel or cultural Loxodonta africana behaviour. We do not present descriptions of behaviours, methodologies, results or discussion; these may be found online within The Elephant Ethogram.

The Elephant Ethogram is an ElephantVoices initiative to document the complex, diverse and nuanced repertoire of behaviour and communication of African savannah elephants (L. africana). In a unique, user-friendly, fully searchable and publicly accessible database, The Elephant Ethogram chronicles the rich postural, gestural, tactile, chemical and acoustic communication and behaviour of Africa's savannah elephants. It includes commonly displayed, unusual, novel and culturally learned behaviours, as well as those expressed in response to people. The Elephant Ethogram is based on published descriptions of behaviour and the decades of behavioural studies and photographic, acoustic and video-graphic collections from Amboseli National Park (NP), the Maasai Mara ecosystem (Mara), Kenya, and Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique conducted by ElephantVoices. It is also built from behaviour captured for documentaries filmed in the Mara and Gorongosa and video clips of unusual behaviour collected by colleagues and members of the general public.

The Elephant Ethogram replaces ElephantVoices' online Elephant Gestures and Elephant Calls Databases originally developed in 2003 and revamped in 2011 (Poole 2011; Poole and Granli 2011), that were based on our elephant studies in Amboseli National Park, Kenya between 1975 and 2009 (Poole 1987; Poole et al. 1988; Poole 1989a; Poole 1989b; Poole et al. 2005) and the work of other scientists (Douglas-Hamilton 1972; Berg 1983; Moss 1983; Kahl and Armstrong 2000; Kahl and Armstrong 2002).

Between 2011 and 2019 we carried out elephant behaviour studies and conservation projects in the Mara, and Gorongosa NP, during which we completed elephant, field notes, images and videos of the behaviour of known individuals. Furthermore, in a ground-breaking collaboration with copyright owners Off the Fence, Gorongosa Media Project and Bob Poole Films, hundreds of hours of raw footage of elephants, originally shot for documentaries in Gorongosa and the Mara, were granted to ElephantVoices for use in science and education. Since we collaborated with the filmmakers on site, the footage primarily depicts known individuals. In 2020 we collected additional footage of behaviour in Amboseli National Park. The Elephant Ethogram combines and significantly improves the structure and functionality of the original databases, includes hundreds of additional behaviours, 2,400 annotated video clip examples from three populations, higher-resolution images, additional audio files.

Elephant behaviour has been documented by hunters, naturalists and scientists for hundreds of years starting with the earliest scholarly notes of Aristotle (1862 translation) to those of Darwin (1872) to Kühme’s (1962; 1963) research on captive African elephants. The study of free-ranging elephants by Douglas-Hamilton (1972) stimulated the work of many who followed, including the five decades-long work of Moss and her colleagues, and our own.

From hundreds of published studies, we know that savannah elephants show great richness, variation and flexibility in their behaviour. Some of these publications have described elephant behaviours relevant to the aims of their particular study (Moss 1983 (oestrus); Poole 1987 (musth); O’Connell-Rodwell et al. 2011 (male-male relationships); Goldenberg and Wittemyer 2020 (death)), but only Kahl and Armstrong’s work in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe (2000; 2002) and our own in Amboseli National Park (Poole 2011; Poole and Granli 2011) aimed to document the full repertoire of behaviour of the species. We worked closely with Kahl to share data and to agree on terminology and definitions. Until his untimely death in 2012 Kahl’s plan was to publish a detailed elephant ethogram.

The construction of “exclusive ethograms” to describe a species' behaviour or activity patterns is commonly used in behavioural studies, where the ethogram focuses on the behaviours of interest. It is more unusual to find catalogues that attempt to produce an “exhaustive” ethogram of all known behaviours of a given species. One example is the work of Nishida et al. (1999) on chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, which aims to provide an exhaustive list of behaviours. This body of work defines 515 behaviours, recording whether they were idiosyncratic, limited to a small group, to one population or were, to a greater or lesser extent, cross-cultural. Another example is the work of Bolgan et al. (2014) on the Arctic charr, Salvelinus alpinus, a fish species.

A draw-back of these studies is that they are non-searchable, written documents without video-graphic documentation. Nishida et al. (2010) solved this problem for their study of chimpanzees by publishing a book with an accompanying CD. Very few studies; however, have attempted to produce an exhaustive, searchable web-based ethogram of a species with video examples of behaviour. One example is Mouse Ethogram: An Ethogram for the Laboratory Mouse developed in the Stanford Medical School in the Laboratory of Joseph Garner. Since this study was carried out in a captive environment it is unlikely to be exhaustive for the species.

African elephants (Savannah and Forest) are among the most socially complex non-human species (Moss and Poole 1983; McComb et al. 2000; Archie et al. 2005; Wittemyer et al. 2005), as well as one of the more heavily exploited (Meredith 2001; Wittemyer et al. 2014). As scientists continue to document their extraordinary behaviour, elephants are increasingly impacted by humans to the point where their behaviour is notably affected (Douglas-Hamilton et al. 2005; Gaynor et al. 2018; Wall et al. 2021) and their future survival endangered (Wittemyer et al. 2014; Hart et al. 2021).



2021-10-30 — Updated on 2021-11-09


How to Cite

Poole, J., & Granli, P. (2021). The Elephant Ethogram: a library of African elephant behaviour. Pachyderm, 62, 105–111. Retrieved from (Original work published October 30, 2021)



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