Elephants Call Each Other By Name: A Fascinating Discovery

June 11, 2024

A recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution has uncovered that African savannah elephants might indeed call each other by unique, name-like vocalizations.

elephants call each other by name

Unveiling the Mystery of Elephant Communication

Lead study author Michael Pardo and his team embarked on an innovative journey to decipher elephant communication using a combination of machine learning and field playback experiments. The study's findings suggest that elephants use specific calls to address individual members of their family, akin to human names.

"Using a combination of machine learning and playback experiments in the field, we find that African savannah elephants address members of their family with individually specific, name-like calls," wrote Pardo. Unlike dolphins and parrots, which imitate the signature calls of their peers, elephants appear to use unique, non-imitative calls for this purpose, marking a significant discovery in our understanding of animal cognition and language evolution.

The Significance of Name-Like Calls

Vocal labeling—assigning learned sounds to objects, individuals, or ideas—is fundamental to human language, yet its evolutionary roots remain elusive. This study shines a light on non-human analogues to human naming, offering a rare glimpse into the complex social structures and communication strategies of elephants.

By recording 469 calls from wild African elephants in Kenya, the researchers sought to determine if these calls contained identifying information about the receiver. A random-forest machine-learning model was trained to predict the receiver based on the call's acoustic features. The results were telling: the model could predict the receiver significantly better than chance, indicating that the calls indeed contain a name-like component.

Experiments and Insights

To further test their hypothesis, the team conducted playback experiments with 17 elephants, comparing their reactions to calls addressed to them versus calls intended for others. The elephants responded more quickly and vocally to calls directed at them, underscoring their ability to recognize and react to their own "names."

Interestingly, the study found no evidence that these name-like calls imitated the receiver's vocalizations. This distinguishes elephant communication from that of dolphins and parrots, where imitation plays a key role. Instead, elephants seem to have developed a unique method of vocal labeling that facilitates social interactions within their complex social structures.

"Although dolphins and parrots address conspecifics by imitating the calls of the addressee, arbitrary personal names or labels that are not imitative sounds appear to be unique to humans," wrote the Nature Ecology & Evolution Editorial Team. "However, here, Pardo et al. show that African elephants address each other with individually specific calls that do not imitate the characteristics of the receiver, and instead are arbitrary, just as with human names."

Future Directions

This groundbreaking research opens up new avenues for exploring how elephants use these name-like calls. Are they used in the absence of the addressed individual?

"We would also like to explore the possibility that elephants vocally label or 'name' other entities in their environment besides individual conspecifics," Pardo said.

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