Elephants Call Each Other By Unique Names, Study Finds

A new study has shone fresh light on the complex social lives of elephants

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3 Minutes Read

Two elephants, who are known to call each other by name, with their trunks intertwined Elephants use names to communicate with each other, a new study has found - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Elephants appear to call each other by names that they invent, just like humans do, according to a new study.

Using artificial intelligence to analyze the calls of herds of elephants in Kenya, a team of experts found that they use different vocalizations depending on who they are calling to. Elephants also ignored calls of vocalizations addressed to others. This is thought to be the first time a non-human animal has been found to use names that don’t involve imitation. The elephant “names” consisted of a variety of low frequency sounds that could not be heard by the human ear. 

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“Elephants are a highly social, highly vocal species and we know there is a lot going on with their communication but we haven’t been able to decipher much,” senior study author Professor George Wittemyer said in a statement. “We know if we could get insight into what they’re saying we could get a new insight into what they think.”

The findings

A herd of elephants, who are known to communicate with each other using names
Adobe Stock It appears that elephants communicate with each other in a similar way to humans

The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Over the course of a year, researchers recorded 400 elephant “rumbles” at Samburu national reserve and Amboseli national park. “Names” weren’t always used in calls, but when they were it was often an adult communicating with a baby elephant, or elephants calling to each other over a long distance. 

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Researchers noted that elephants responded “energetically” when their name was called, but were less enthused when the name of another animal was used. 

“Elephants do these really interesting behaviours when they are in a big group,” said Wittemyer. “A matriarch will give a call and the entire group will respond and other times she gives a seemingly similar call and nobody will respond except for a single elephant in the group.

“So that indicates they have a means to which they can communicate who they want to talk to.”

Names in other animals

There have been some similar discoveries in other animals. Bottlenose dolphins, for example, have been found to use names to call out for each other when separated, but this sound is an imitation of the call of the other dolphin. Names used in the elephant study, however, appear to be arbitrary, in the same way that human names are. 

“These other creatures have really complex lives and nuanced relationships and are thinking about the world in very complex ways that we don’t even recognise,” said Wittemyer. “And I hope that teaches us to value them more.”

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