African Elephants May Call Each Other by Name

In a new study, a computer model was able to identify the recipient of an elephant’s call more than a quarter of the time, which scientists say is significantly greater than chance

A handful of elephants stand behind a bush
Elephants at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, on May 3, 2024. Elephants use low, rumbling vocalizations to call to others and while caring for their young. Hua Hongli / Xinhua via Getty Images

When wild African elephants call out, they might identify each other by name, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

While some other animals possess the ability to imitate others, humans are the only species known to assign invented vocal labels to other objects and beings. But in the new study, a computer model was able to identify the recipient of an elephant’s call with some success by analyzing a recording of the caller’s vocalization.

The findings “raise intriguing questions about the complexity of elephant social cognition,” the study authors write. The discovery could alter our understanding of cognition and the evolution of language.

“It might seem obvious to me and other elephant researchers that these calls are very specific, because you see that a certain individual will respond, but no one has [previously] shown it,” Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an elephant behavioral ecologist at Harvard Medical School who did not contribute to the findings, tells Scientific American’s Marta Zaraska.

“This study opens a door into how their mind works,” George Wittemyer, a co-author of the study and biologist at Colorado State University, says to National Geographic’s Laurel Neme. “We’re making a step to understanding them better, and maybe that will help us live with them better.”

Some animals make calls to identify individuals, but these noises are simply mimicked. For instance, bottlenose dolphins and orange-fronted parakeets make “signature” calls to identify themselves—and other members of their species address them by imitating this signature. But vocal labeling that doesn’t involve imitation may be more cognitively demanding, the study authors write.

For elephants, the most common type of call is a low rumble used when contacting other elephants that are out of sight, greeting nearby elephants and giving care to calves. These rumbles spread through the ground as seismic waves and can reach elephants as far as 3.75 miles away, per Vox’s Celia Ford.

Before starting their research, the team suspected elephants could direct their vocalizations at specific individuals. But biologist Joyce Poole, a co-author of the paper, tells National Geographic she “had no idea how one would tease this out.”

For the new study, scientists fed a computer model 469 rumble calls from wild groups of female African savanna elephants and their offspring. The vocalizations, representing 101 different callers and 117 different receivers, were recorded in various locations in Kenya between 1986 and 2022.

Based on the context in which each call was made, the researchers knew its recipient. The model, which did not have this contextual information, correctly identified the recipient 27.5 percent of the time, better than it would have been able to do by chance. Also, the researchers note, elephants likely don’t always use the vocal labels when addressing each other, just like humans don’t always use names when talking.

Vocalizations with the same caller and receiver had more similarities than calls with the same caller and different receiver, suggesting that the calls contain information that identifies the receiver. The team didn’t find evidence to suggest elephants were simply imitating receivers’ own calls.

In another experiment, when they played back the recorded rumbles to 17 elephants in the wild, the animals responded more strongly to calls that were originally directed at them than to calls from the same elephant that were directed at other elephants.

The playback results are “very convincing,” Karl Berg, a biologist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who was not involved in the research, tells NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce. “I have no doubt that they’re addressing them with these, you know, unique labels,” Berg adds. “Now, are they nicknames? Are they names? Where do they come from?”

Yossi Yovel, a zoologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who did not contribute to the findings, tells National Geographic that while the calls may seem like names, there could be other explanations for what they are.

The calls themselves are very rich, making it difficult to determine which specific parts of the calls encode information about the receiver. But the elephants’ ability to learn or invent sounds to address others suggests some capacity for symbolic thought, the study authors write.

“If you can name things without relying on imitation, then, at least in theory, it is possible for you to talk about a wider range of subjects, because you could potentially come up with names for objects and ideas that don’t make any imitable sound,” Mickey Pardo, a co-author of the study and biologist at Cornell University, tells Scientific American.

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