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Le remerciement de l'éléphant

Kerala - Inde

Cet éléphanteau pris dans un trou (sans doute un ancien puits) va être libéré par un grutier. Il va réussir à s'extirper et rejoindre sa famille qui l'attend près de la rivière et assiste aux secours. Les adultes vont alors montrer leur gratitude envers les humains d'un signe de trompe (qui ne trompe pas les éthologistes - commentaire ci-dessous)

Zoologist here! Hmmm, so we don't really know, but I'd argue it's very likely.

Though this is an Asiatic elephant, I know multiple in-depth studies have been undertaken on the use of visual gestures and signals in the closely related African savannah elephant over several decades. Marvin Kahl and Billie Armstrong, of the International Elephant Foundation, originally described some 83 specific communicative gestures in their work published in 2000, which formed the basis of the ever growing Elephant Voices behavioural database. Their work, along with that of others, catalogues how elephants use a variety of subtle movements and gestures to communicate with one another, including things like brief flicks of the trunk, short side-steps and a small folding of the ear that a human onlooker might shrug off as nothing.

So yup, it seems likely there is some purpose behind the elephant's raised trunk, and it may be communicative. But what?

Though it's very much the case that many signals elephants employ in order to communicate, particularly auditory, are learnt and undergo processes of cultural evolution, and therefore may not be applicable between different populations, it's not unreasonable to suspect some visual cues may translate across species - much like how any human, regardless of culture, understands what a smile means.

We know that elephants understand the perspective of onlookers - i.e. the elephant knows the rescuers have agency and are looking at it - so it's aware it has an audience. Applying gestures known for African elephants it seems to be displaying something along the lines of wariness and general attentiveness, alongside a signal to suggest it's standing it's ground and aware of the presence of onlookers in a defensive manner (perhaps 'keep away from my calf'). Additionally, from Poole et al.:

(As general attentiveness) an elephant may hold its trunk relatively straight and turn the tip in the direction of interest, or (to determine olfactory cues) raise the trunk straight up to sample scents carried on the wind.  

And on the elephant ear movement:

To gather information on social sounds or potential danger, an elephant ceases movement and stands listening with its ears raised and slightly extended, possibly turning side to side to locate the direction of the sound.

So, err, yeah. Given the complexity of elephant visual communication, it's likely there is some motive behind the gestures, but as to what they are, I doubt we'll ever really know. Maybe it's just sniffing the crowd, acting wary and displaying general defensive gestures - basically saying 'I'm aware of you, keep away'. Or, heck, who knows - maybe a genuine thanks. N'aaaw!

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