Elephants Call Each Other by Name

New study shows that elephants use personal names.


Study, Wildlife
African elephant mother and calf.

(Anke van Wyk / Shutterstock.com)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually. It is an integral part of human identity. It turns out however, that it is not only humans who use names. A new study published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution shows that alongside humans, elephants are the only animals currently known to use names when referring to one another. 

Inspired by dolphins
It has long been known, The Guardian reports, that African elephants are very social creatures with highly developed brains. They make all sorts of sounds, from low-rumblings, barely audible to the human ear, to loud trumpeting sounds. 

It was these sounds, and his knowledge of dolphin behavior that led Dr. Mickey Pardo, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University, to try and ascertain if any of those sounds were names, according to NPR.

Sometimes another bottlenose dolphin will imitate somebody else's signature whistle in order to get their attention, so effectively calling them by name,” Pardo told NPR. “The idea from the outset of this project was to try to figure out if elephants have names.”

AI and Fieldwork
In order to determine if elephants call each other by name, Pardo and his fellow researchers had Artificial Intellegence (AI) analyze the recordings of 469 rumbling noises made by wild African elephants from Kenya between the years 1986 and 2022. 

They hoped that the recording would contain identifying information, that is to say, a name, for the elephant the rumbling call was made to. The AI identified 469 distinct calls. 

The researchers went out into the field. They worked with 17 elephants, mostly female, to see whether they reacted to the recorded sound of their own names. Amazingly, the elephants seemed to know when they were being referred to and both replied quickly and approached the loudspeaker when they listened to recordings that included the distinct call that referred to them.

Another interesting element of the study results is that many of the names seemed to be called by mothers addressing their young. In addition, The Guardian reports, adult elephants used names more often than young ones. This may indicate that name calling is a skill that takes some time to learn in elephant calves.

Unfortunately, according to NPR, the researchers were not able to ascertain which exact part of the rumbling calls indicated the specific name. Knowing that information would open up a whole new world in terms of our understanding of elephants and their social structure. 

“Do they ever use somebody’s name when they’re not there?” Pardo wondered. 

Whatever the case, this is still big news, and an important reminder that humans are more similar to our animal relatives than they are different. 

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