Elephants Have Names for Each Other, Study Finds

A mother elephant with her calves in northern Kenya.

A mother elephant with her calves in northern Kenya. George Wittemyer

Elephants call each other by name and respond when they hear others call their name, according to new research.

For the study, researchers analyzed hundreds of elephant calls recorded over more than a year in Kenya. Using machine learning, they identified the specific sounds that elephants made when calling each other. Researchers then played recorded calls, finding that elephants responded to the sound of their friends or family saying their name — they called back, or moved toward the speaker. Elephants responded less enthusiastically to the sound of other names.

The use of names is rare in the animal kingdom, and it typically works by imitation. Dolphins refer to other dolphins by mimicking their signature sound. Parrots identify each other in similar fashion. Elephant calls are unusual in that they do not rely on imitation. The new findings, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggest that elephants may be capable of abstract thought and could possess a vocabulary that goes beyond names.

More work is needed to see if elephants can identify food, water, or locations in calls. Study coauthor George Wittemyer, a conservation biologist at Colorado State University, hopes it will someday be possible for humans to communicate with elephants directly, and alert them to poachers or other threats.

Said Wittemyer, “I’d like to be able to warn them, ‘Do not come here. You’re going to be killed if you come here.’”


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