African elephants use name-like calls to address each other

Parrots and dolphins also use personal signifiers when communicating.
Laura Baisas Avatar
two juvenile elephants greet each other near a watering hole. their trunks are interlocked.
Two juvenile elephants greet each other in Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya. George Wittemyer

Despite hundreds of million years of divergent evolution, humans and elephants both have complex social lives and are strong communicators. Elephants use gestures and vocal cues to convey meaning, maybe even something akin to individual names. Wild African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) appear to address one another with name-like calls, a very rare ability among non-human animals. The findings are described in a study published June 10 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

While humans are the only animals known to address each other by using actual names, dolphins and parrots have been observed addressing one another by name-like soundsThey do this by imitating a signature call of the animal that they are addressing. 

Dolphins and elephants also share the rare ability to learn to imitate sounds. This shared ability to mimic piqued study co-author and Cornell University behavioral ecologist Michael “Mickey” Pardo’s interest. Could elephants also use something like a name to address one another?

[Related: Scientists may have figured out why elephants exhibit complex emotions.]

“Humans and elephants have been evolving on separate branches of the tree of life for 90-100 million years, and despite our many similarities, we interact with the world very differently in some ways,” Pardo tells Popular Science. “Aside from their communication, which for me personally is one of the most exciting aspects of their behavior, we are learning that elephants are much more prosocial and cooperative than many other species.”

In this study, Pardo and the team used machine-learning methods to analyze recordings of 469 calls or  ‘rumbles’ made by wild African elephant female–offspring groups in the Amboseli National Park and Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya. African elephants have a wide variety of communication staples, from louder trumpeting to low rumbling of the vocal cords to infrasonic sounds that our ears can’t pick up. 

The study’s model correctly identified the recipients of 27.5 of these calls. According to the team, this is a higher percentage than the model detected when it was fed a control audio. This means that the elephants may be addressing each other using individual-specific calls that don’t solely rely on imitating noises made by the individual that’s being addressed.

Next, the team compared the reactions of 17 wild elephants in response to recordings of calls. These calls were either addressed to them or a different elephant. The elephants approached the speaker more quickly and vocally in response to the calls that were originally addressed to them, compared to those that were originally addressed towards another elephant. The elephants may be recognizing the individual calls addressed to them.

[Related: Pang Pha the elephant learned to peel bananas by mimicking humans.]

“The fact that we were able to get such clear cut results with the playback experiment was pretty surprising,” says Pardo. “It was incredibly difficult to get the recordings for the playback experiment, because we needed very clear recordings of rumbles made in a long-distance contact calling context where we knew who the caller was and who the receiver was. Honestly, I was a little shocked that the results were statistically significant.”

The elephants were just as likely to use name-like calls when addressing their calves at a close distance as when they were calling to social companions that were out of sight. Calling an individual by something name-like was also more common over long distances or when adults were talking to younger elephants.

“This was surprising because it seems like names would be much more useful when calling to someone who you can’t see, and also because name-like calls were much less likely to be used when calling to other adults at close distance,” says Pardo. 

More research is needed to investigate the contexts that elephants use these name-like calls. Understanding how this world could also help shed light on the origins of names in both humans and elephants.