Elephants also call each other by name

two young elephants greet each other with their trunks

Two young elephants greet each other. © George Wittemyer

African elephants are known for the close social bonds within their groups. Now zoologists in Kenya have discovered that the elephants apparently address each other with name-like calls. The elephants use an exclamation with an individual sound – similar to the personal names used by humans. This is the first time that this behavior has been observed in mammals other than humans. This could also shed light on why we humans use names. This is because the pachyderms have a similar social lifestyle to us.

Some animal species, such as dolphins or parrots, address each other with personal calls. However, they only imitate the characteristic sounds of the individual they are addressing, their so-called signature call, as previous studies have shown. The fact that animals call each other when they hear different-sounding personal names is only known to occur in humans. This type of communication is considered a sign of higher cognitive abilities. Observations, however, suggest that some elephants may also use proper names.

Female elephant with two calves in the open savannah of Kenya
The elephant lady named “Desert Rose” from the “Flower Family” leads her calves out of danger in northern Kenya. © George Wittemyer

Elephants respond to their own name

A team led by Michael Pardo from Colorado State University has now documented such behavior for the first time in elephants, a non-human species. The zoologists analyzed the calls within the herds of wild African elephants (Loxodonta africana) that live in the three national parks Amboseli, Samburu and Buffalo Springs in Kenya. With the help of artificial intelligence, Pardo and his colleagues compared 469 sound recordings of a total of 101 elephants that were made between 1986 and 2022. In fact, the AI ​​was able to assign 27.5 percent of the sounds to the respective recipients of the calls. They were therefore intended for a total of 117 recipients. The calls were more like growls than powerful trumpeting, the zoologists report. They conclude that the elephants address each other with individual name calls without imitating the sound language of the person being addressed.

Pardo and his colleagues then played some of the recordings to the elephants and observed the animals’ reactions. They found that the elephants approached the loudspeaker when their own “name” was heard from it. However, when they heard the name of another elephant, they ignored the recordings. The team also reported that the elephants responded more frequently to their own name calls with enthusiastic exclamations. This suggests that the elephants recognize when they are addressed by their alias and respond to it. Based on the recordings, the zoologists also suspect that the different herd members probably all use the same name for the same member of their species. However, they may also use multiple names.

The video shows how an elephant reacts to a recording in which another elephant calls him by name. © Colorado State University

How do elephants and humans communicate?

The results prove for the first time that animals can also be smart enough for this type of individual communication. “The use of arbitrary vocal names indicates that elephants may be capable of abstract thinking,” says senior author George Wittemyer of Colorado State University. “The ability to use arbitrary sound names for other individuals also suggests that there may be other types of names or descriptions in elephant calls,” adds Kurt Fristrup of Colorado State University. For example, elephants may also have special calls for water, food or places. Group names for several individuals are also conceivable.

Elephant family with calves under a shady tree
The Wind Family comforts their calves while taking an afternoon nap under a tree in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. © George Wittemyer

Follow-up studies will now investigate when and why the pachyderms use their name calls or possible other names. This could also shed light on how the use of proper names in elephants and humans has developed over the course of evolution. Both mammal species are considered social and communicative creatures that communicate through gestures, smells, touch and sounds. Pardo and his colleagues therefore suspect that the similar way of life in families and social networks once made it necessary for elephants and humans to develop proper names. “We are probably exposed to similar stresses, which are largely due to complex social interactions,” says Wittemyer. Pardo’s team observed, for example, that the elephants use their personal names more often when calling each other over longer distances and when speaking to their children.

Source: Michael Pardo (Colorado State University) et al., Nature Ecology & Evolution, doi: 10.1038/s41559-024-02420-w

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