Like Us, Elephants Have Names Too!

A groundbreaking study on African elephant communication  has revealed that elephants, like humans,  use ‘names’ to address each other.

Date Published

African elephants address each other by name, new study shows

Nairobi, June 10 2024. A groundbreaking study on African elephant communication has revealed that elephants, like humans, use ‘names’ to address each other.

Researchers at Save the Elephants, Colorado State University, and ElephantVoices have recorded vocalisations from wild African elephants in Kenya that suggest they address each other with individually specific calls dubbed ‘vocal labels’.

The study, which provides unprecedented insights into animal cognition and the evolution of language, has today (June 10) been published in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Elephants, like humans, maintain strong bonds with family members and associates, and it now seems that they have independently evolved a sophisticated mechanism for individually addressing them. Common features in the social environments of both human and elephant ancestors may have led them to develop this rare ability, the new research suggests. 

Much like humans, African elephants have ‘names’ for each other © Robbie Labanowski/Save the Elephants 

During the study, the researchers analysed calls from wild elephants in two areas of Kenya: Samburu National Reserve,  where Save the Elephants has its main research base, and Amboseli National Park, where most of the calls in the ElephantVoices database were recorded. The ultimate dataset comprised 469 distinct calls. Among these, 101 unique callers and 117 unique receivers were identified.

Using a type of machine learning algorithm known as a Random Forest, the scientists uncovered a distinctive “vocal label” in elephant calls, similar to a name. When these calls were played back, the elephants responded energetically to those addressed to them, approaching the source and vocalising in response – further supporting the existence of ‘vocal labels’. Calls meant for others were met with less enthusiasm and reduced vocalisation, highlighting elephants’ capability to recognize and respond to their own names.

Says lead author of the study, Dr. Mickey Pardo, “Our study design 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. 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.”

Lead author, Mickey Pardo (left), and STE researcher, James Mpapa (right), eavesdropping’ on elephant conversations in Samburu National Reserve © Jane Wynyard/Save the Elephants

Like humans, elephants likely do not use names in every vocalisation. Researchers used the machine learning algorithm to investigate which calls were most likely to contain names. They noted that calls containing vocal labels  were more common among elephants communicating over long distances or adults addressing calves, rather than adults greeting each other at close range. Adults were also more likely than juveniles to use vocal labels, suggesting that elephants may take years to learn to address one another by name.

Dr. Joyce Poole, Scientific Director of ElephantsVoices says, “Over the years I often observed a particular elephant’s contact call answered excitedly by one family member, yet a second contact call was answered by a different elephant. Meanwhile, the rest of the family might disregard the calling individual altogether. Being intelligent, socially complex animals, I have long wondered whether elephants are able to address one another by name. This study, using machine learning, shows they can!”  

Another particularly interesting aspect the researchers discovered is that, unlike in dolphins and parrots, elephant names did not appear to be imitations of the receiver’s own vocalisations. The ability to name individuals, objects, or ideas without relying on imitation is an important feature of human language. It vastly expands our vocal repertoire by allowing us to talk about things that don’t make any imitable sound.

Says Professor George Wittemyer, senior author of the study, “We know elephants are highly communicative. The evidence provided here that elephants use non-imitative sounds to label others indicates they have the ability for abstract thought”.

Besides their intelligence, elephants are highly communicative © Robbie Labanowski/Save the Elephants

These findings pave the way for a deeper understanding of elephant cognition, offering invaluable insights for their conservation. By unlocking the secrets of elephant communication, we gain unprecedented access to the inner workings of elephant minds, potentially fostering better conservation strategies for these majestic creatures. 

Says Dr Pardo. “This opens up exciting new avenues of inquiry about the evolution of language. Our conclusions about the role of imitation in elephant names are still very preliminary, but if further research substantiates the idea that elephants can invent arbitrary names for one another, it will raise fascinating questions about why humans and elephants have evolved such a uniquely flexible means of communicating.”

Says Wittemyer, “Elephant vocalisations are incredibly information rich, making it quite challenging for us to decode the meaning of their communications. This has literally limited our ability to understand elephants, perhaps in part leading to the challenges we are having with their protection. Unlocking their communication can open doors to understanding the way elephant minds work.”

Save the Elephants’ CEO, Frank Pope, says: “Elephants are separated from humans by a hundred million years of evolution, yet we have converged on many aspects of our lives. We live for similar periods, in extended family units with rich social lives, underpinned by highly developed brains. AI is helping to open up a new frontier in our understanding of the natural world; that elephants use names for one another is likely only the start of the revelations to come.” 

To read the paper, African elephants address one another with individually specific name-like calls, click here.

Key results of the study:

  • Scientists have uncovered a distinctive “vocal label” in elephant calls, similar to a name
  • Unlike other nonhuman species with names, African elephants seem to address each other without copying the receiver’s calls
  • When ‘vocal labels’ were played back, elephants responded energetically to those addressed to them, approaching the source and vocalising in response.
  • ‘Vocal labels’ were more common among elephants communicating over long distances or adults addressing calves than among adults addressing each other at close distance. They were also more likely to be produced by adults than by juveniles, suggesting that it may take elephants several years to learn to address one another by name

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