Elephants use their feet in a variety of ways. They don’t only use their feet to move around, dig for water, or break branches. They also use their feet for things like playing, intimidating others, or making others move. In this blog, we explore the unexpected things that elephants use their feet for.

We have been inspired by the great work of Elephant Voices and used their work, the elephants in our care, and the experts we work with as resources for this information.

Why do elephants scuff their feet against the ground?

Elephants are capable of walking without making much sound, but sometimes they purposefully scuff their feet against the ground to produce sounds. This is one way that elephants attempt to appear more intimidating to other elephants or animals. It may be combined with other behaviours that are meant to intimidate, such as spreading the ears or lifting the head in order to look bigger. Elephants may also scuff their feet against the ground while playing with other elephants. In this context, it’s not meant to intimidate others, but is just playful behaviour.

Sometimes elephants scuff or kick their feet against the ground to kick up dust. This is also done to intimidate other elephants or animals, and it can also be a type of playful behaviour.

Elephants may also appear to be scuffing their feet against the ground when they’re busy kicking soil or grass to loosen it. Elephants eat both grass and soil, as both contain nutrients. They also throw soil over their bodies, which helps to protect their skin from the sun and from insects.

While chasing after impalas, Setombe (left) scuffs her feet against the ground to produce sound – she does this to intimidate the impalas.

Why do elephants lift and swing their feet?

You may have seen elephants lifting one of their feet up off the ground, sometimes keeping the foot still and sometimes swinging the foot backward and forward. Usually this is done with a forefoot, but it may also be done with a hindfoot. Elephants do this for a variety of reasons.

Elephants may lift or swing their feet when they are feeling conflicted or are unsure of what to do. They may also lift or swing their feet while considering or assessing a situation, possibly in an attempt to pick up seismic vibrations.

Older elephants may lift or swing their feet in order to indicate to other elephants that they want them to move in a certain direction. In these instances, elephants will also take a few steps or orient their bodies in a certain direction, rumble, and flap their ears while they wait for other elephants to join them.

The youngsters of the herd stand together while waiting for the adults to make sure the misty area ahead is safe. They are unsure of the situation, and you can see Kumbura (far left) lifting a forefoot and Pisa (far right) lifting a hindfoot.

Why do elephants kick objects or each other?

If you’ve seen the youngsters of the Jabulani herd playing with each other, you’ve likely seen elephants kicking each other. It may sometimes look a bit aggressive, but kicking is normal playful behaviour for young elephants. If older elephants think that playing calves are being a bit too rough with each other, they will likely step in to prevent the calves from getting hurt.

Elephants may kick back at other elephants in order to make them move. Sometimes this is because they deem another elephant to be standing too close to them and want to make them move back, and sometimes this is because another elephant is standing or lying down in a spot they want for themselves. Timisa is especially fond of utilising a few back kicks, whether to make Khanyisa move away from her when she’s standing too close, or to make Pisa move when she has the best sand mound spot.

Elephants also sometimes kick objects. Elephants may kick an object they are playing with, such as a branch. They may also kick bushes or other vegetation in an attempt to appear more intimidating to other elephants or animals.

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  1. Thank you for the education you provide of these wonderful animals. It’s much better than having to read an animal anatomy book. 🙂

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