How elephants call each other by name

A bird perches on an elephant as it walks at the Amboseli National Park in Kajiado County, Kenya, April 4, 2024. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Scientists have observed that elephants use names that do not involve imitation to call out to each other.

Unlike other species including parrots and dolphins which respond to sounds by mimicking, elephants are not responsive if the calls are not intended for them.

A study by a group of international researchers revealed that elephants invent arbitrary names for each other and they can relate to these names accordingly.

As part of the study, the team of international researchers used an artificial intelligence algorithm to examine the calls of two wild herds of African savanna elephants in Kenya.

Researchers also analysed elephant "rumbles" collected over the years at Kenya's Samburu and Amboseli national parks between 1986 to 2022.

They used a machine-learning algorithm that identified 469 distinct calls. Out of this, 101 elephants issued a call and 117 received one.

When names were called out by the elephants, it was often over a long distance and mostly by adults to address young elephants, indicating that it takes years for calves to learn the art of name-calling.

According to the study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, the most common call was “a harmonically rich, low-frequency sound”.

The research “not only shows that elephants use specific vocalisations for each individual, but that they recognise and react to a call addressed to them while ignoring those addressed to others”, the lead study author, Michael Pardo, was quoted as having said.

Recordings were played to other family or friend elephants and the receiving elephant will always respond positively. But the elephants responded with less enthusiasm when the names of others were played.

“This indicates that elephants can determine whether a call was intended for them just by hearing the call, even when out of its original context,” the behavioural ecologist at Colorado State University said in a statement.

Name-calling between elephants makes them the only other animals aside from humans that have this unique ability.

Despite our differences, humans and elephants share many similarities such as “extended family units with rich social lives, underpinned by highly developed brains”, the CEO of Save the Elephants, Frank Pope, said. “That elephants use names for one another is likely only the start of the revelations to come.”

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