The ways in which elephants communicate are vast and complex. We have only recently started to understand some aspects of elephant communication, and there is still much we don’t know about this topic. One way in which elephants communicate is through touch – this is called tactile communication. If you’ve ever spent some time looking at elephants – whether in person or in videos – it’s likely that you’ve seen an elephant using their trunk to reach for the mouth of another elephant, or place their trunk near or into the mouth of another elephant. This behaviour is a form of tactile communication.

There are many different contexts in which elephants place their trunks near or into the mouths of other elephants, and many different reasons why they do so. We look into some of these contexts and reasons below.

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.

Note: Hereafter we will refer to this behaviour as ‘placing the trunk in the mouth of another’, but elephants may only place their trunks near the mouths of others, or they may only reach for the mouths of others with their trunks.

Greeting and Bonding

Elephants place their trunks in the mouths of others during bonding ceremonies. Elephant bonding ceremonies occur for a variety of reasons – during greetings, births, etc. – and involve numerous behaviours. In addition to placing their trunks in each other’s mouths, elephants may back toward each other, flap their ears, trumpet, etc. It is believed that bonding ceremonies help to reinforce bonds between elephants.

This behaviour is not limited to greeting ceremonies. Elephants place their trunks in each other’s mouths during all types of greetings, even when the greeting takes place between only two elephants.

Reassuring and Comforting

One reason why elephants place their trunks in others’ mouths is to offer reassurance or comfort. When elephants encounter a threat, they may bunch together and place their trunks in each other’s mouths to reassure each other. Elephant cows may also place their trunks in a calf’s mouth to reassure or comfort the calf.

You have likely seen Khanyisa’s allomothers placing their trunks in Khanyisa’s mouth, especially in situations where she seemed scared or unsure. In this way, they try to offer her comfort or reassurance. This behaviour is not limited to calves – you may also have seen older elephants reassuring each other. For example, Tokwe sometimes places her trunk in Bubi’s mouth to reassure her in stressful situations, as Bubi can become quite nervous.

Matriarch Tokwe (right) touches Bubi’s mouth with her trunk to comfort her in a stressful situation.

Asking For, Taking, and Sampling Food

When asking for food, elephant calves may reach into the mouths of other elephants. This is accompanied by other behaviours such as following other elephants. Calves may also attempt to steal food from the mouths of others, and they may sample some of the food in another elephant’s mouth in order to find out what they are eating. This may help calves to learn what food is safe to eat.

You may have seen Khanyisa using her trunk to reach into the mouths of other elephants while they’re eating, whether to find out what they’re eating or in an attempt to steal some of their food.

Khanyisa reaches into Timisa’s mouth with her trunk in an attempt to take food from her mouth.

Reconciliating and Mediating

When two elephants are in conflict, one elephant may place their trunk in the mouth of the other as an act of conciliation. When a third elephant is trying to mediate an aggressive situation between two elephants, they may also place their trunk into the mouths of the other elephants.

Playing

While playing with each other, elephants sometimes place their trunks in each other’s mouths or touch each other’s mouths. For example, when two elephants are playfully sparring, they may gently touch each other’s tusks or mouths.

Mambo (left) touches Setombe’s mouth with his trunk while the two playfully spar.

Guiding

When attempting to get others to move or to do something specific, an elephant may place their trunk in another elephant’s mouth. In this way, an elephant uses their trunk to “guide” another elephant. For example, an elephant may guide a calf away from something, an elephant may guide other elephants in a certain direction, etc.

On the right, behind Limpopo, Tokwe touches Khanyisa’s mouth with her trunk to guide her away from the homestead fence.

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Comments

  1. I am so happy to read these scientifically informed comments, alongside the moving and rewarding videos. Please keep it up!

    1. We’re so glad to hear that, David! We’ll definitely keep on sharing videos and blog posts! Thank you for watching and reading 🐘❤️

  2. I have been watching your videos for long time.i absolutely love khyanisa,she is the cutest thing I ever saw it’s like she is a animal angle she was meant to be in this care if the Heard and especially Adine the Increable love between these two is so heart felt ,I wish I could hug that beautiful baby Elephant. Wish I could play with a baby I just 💕💕💕💕💕💕💕 love them

  3. Thank You so much for the explanation. I love watching all of the HERD have a huge space in my heart.. watching Khanyisa is my favorite. Seeing her growth into a beautiful elephant has indeed been a pleasure💜💜

    1. Thank you for caring so much about the elephants, Robin! Khanyisa has come so far – we’re so proud of her! 🐘❤️

  4. Thank you very much for the insightful Blog. It is so fun and educational to learn about the Elephants complex social structure’s. I find it so fascinating. Please keep on educating us on these Gentle Giants!!

    1. We’re so happy to hear that you enjoy these blog posts, Diana! We will certainly keep on sharing more elephant information 🐘💕

  5. I have been following Herd for some time now and sincerely appreciate the knowledge, time, and care you share with the world.

    My best to you always,

    Ruthie D.

  6. Absolutely wonderful beautiful animals we should all learn from them and show the love and respect they do deserve you be given them such lovely names thankyou to adine and all the carers the elephants have such a beautiful wYof speaking to each other their do gentle and wise and you are special people god bless all of you. X.

    1. Elephant behaviour is surprising – teaching us a lot about how to communicate with them –
      thank you so much

    2. Thank you so much for your kind comment, Val ❤️ Elephants certainly communicate in a beautiful and special way 🐘💕

  7. Watching the videos I felt like I was going out to forage in the bush with them. It’s wonderful to witness how gentle elephants can be and the way they are protective of each other. Each member of the herd watches over the young ones. It’s wonderful to see how empathetic they can be. Humans can learn from them. And watching little Khanyisas journey from a terrible injury from a snare placed by a human in the bush – I can’t say enough about the care she received and her healing. Watching her learning to be an elephant, trusting and accepting love. The love and caring by Adine and all of the Carers is remarkable. Just recently Khanyisa was accepted by the members of the Jubalani herd as a part of their family, Now her journey continues, Adine and the carers are there watching her, learning more as a member of a family, and they will take care of her,

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, Diana! ❤️ It’s always incredible to see elephants’ gentle ways – so unexpected for such large animals! And it’s a joy to watch Khanyisa learn so many behaviours from the other elephants. And yes, we’re learning so much along with her 😊💕

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