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Elephants Have Names for Each Other, and Maybe Their Own Language

Elephants use specific sounds to identify each other and respond to recordings of their names.

By Paul Smaglik
Jun 10, 2024 5:30 PMJun 10, 2024 5:28 PM
Talking Elephant
Two juvenile elephants greet each other in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. (Credit: George Wittemyer)


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Elephants engage in name-calling, according to a new report in Nature Ecology and Evolution. Unlike a few other animals — like dolphins and parrots — that respond to others imitating their signature call, an elephant’s name is its own separate word.

This finding was born in the field, but confirmed with experiments. It’s been well established that one elephant can signal an entire group with what Joyce Poole, cofounder of Elephant Voices, a nonprofit organization that researches elephant communication, and an author of the paper calls a contact call.

Do Elephants Respond to Name Calling?

When Poole observed a single elephant signaling a group with a powerful rumble, the group would often respond collectively.

However, sometimes one elephant would call and almost everyone in the family would ignore it. Then one would lift its head and appear to listen. That prompted some questions.

“Are these elephants rude so that they are not answering?” says Poole. “Or are they directing the call to one particular elephant?”

It turns out that elephants are, in fact, quite polite. They appear to use specific names for each other. Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU), Save the Elephants, and Elephant Voices used machine learning to identify what part of a call contains that name. Then they isolated that sound and played it back.

Elephants who heard their own name responded. When they heard other elephants’ names they either ignored the call entirely, or reacted minimally.

Read More: Elephant Greeting Ceremonies are More Complex Than They Look

Elephant Language

To learn elephants’ names, Kurt Fristrup, a research scientist in CSU, developed a signal processing technique that detects subtle differences in elephants’ call structures. Then Fristrup and Pardo, a CSU research fellow, trained a machine-learning model to correctly identify which elephant the call was addressed to based on sound patterns.

“Our finding that elephants are not simply mimicking the sound associated with the individual they are calling was the most intriguing,” Fristrup said in a statement.

Elephants are very expressive. Which is why Fristrup easily saw when and how they reacted to different sounds. When they heard their own names, they would react enthusiastically and move toward the source of the call. When elephants heard others’ names, they barely responded.

The researchers spent four years investigating elephant name-calling, including 14 months of fieldwork in Kenya. They followed the elephants in a vehicle and recorded 470 calls from 101 different elephants, addressed to 117 unique recipients in Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park.

If elephants use what Fristup calls arbitrary sonic labels as names, the next question is, do they have words for other things as well?

Read More: Can Elephants Learn By Observing and Imitating Others?

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul Smaglik spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

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