Elephants Might Use Unique Names For Each Other, Just Like Us Humans

Angela Vuckovic
by Angela Vuckovic
Claudia Paulussen/Shutterstock

It seems that humans are not the only ones in the animal world to use personal names – according to a revolutionary new study, African elephants also refer to one another through unique sounds. 

The study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, reveals that elephants can hear their own names over long distances, across the African savanna, and that they speak to one another through a series of low rumbles. The scientific team also reveals that elephants can learn to recognize and call to their mates using their “personal” names, instead of just basic sounds.

“Here we present evidence that wild African elephants address one another with individually specific calls, probably without relying on imitation of the receiver,” the study reads.

In order to achieve these impressive results, the study used machine learning to demonstrate that the receiver of a call could be predicted from the call’s acoustic structure, regardless of how similar the call was to the receiver’s vocalizations.

A herd of African elephants was followed in jeeps in the wild, at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, in order to closely observe their behavior and how they call out, and who responds.

"We've had several incidents where we've been with these elephants and the matriarch of the family will give a call, and everyone in the family will answer,” co-author and Colorado State University ecologist George Wittemyer, said to ITV News. "Then several seconds later, she'll give seemingly a very similar call and nobody in the family would answer except one individual."

Researchers then played these recordings of the individual names to elephants and learned that the animals responded more enthusiastically by flapping their ears and lifting their trunks, whenever they heard their own names. “Just like humans, elephants use names, but probably don’t use names in the majority of utterances, so we wouldn’t expect 100%,” study author and Cornell University biologist Mickey Pardo added. 

Scientists say that animals with complex social structures and close-knit families are more likely to use personal names, as it helps them to be reunited if separated. 

“If you’re looking after a large family, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘Hey, Virginia, get over here!’ ” Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm said.

“Elephants are incredibly social, always talking and touching each other - this naming is probably one of the things that underpins their ability to communicate to individuals,” Wittemyer added, “We just cracked open the door a bit to the elephant mind.”

Angela Vuckovic
Angela Vuckovic

A proud mama to seven dogs and ten cats, Angela spends her days writing for her fellow pet parents and pampering her furballs, all of whom are rescues. When she's not gushing over her adorable cats or playing with her dogs, she can be found curled up with a good fantasy book.

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