Momma elephant and her baby elephant.

Elephants Found to Have Names for Each Other



Using artificial intelligence software, elephant researchers found evidence that every elephant has their own unique name that they use to address each other.

Names are not unique to humans! The more we learn about animals, the more we find that non-human animals are so much more like us than originally thought. In fact, a recent study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution found that elephants have unique names for each other. They are one of the small number of species observed to address each other by name. This is the first time studies like this have been done with an elephant species.

Researchers followed female African savanna elephants across the Kenyan savanna, recording vocalizations as they went. They noted which elephant made what call and to whom the call was addressed, focusing on the deep, thrumming sounds (known as “rumbles”) that make up the majority of elephant calls. Given that elephant calls are incredibly complex, this was quite a scientific undertaking—especially as they needed to distinguish between caregiving calls, greeting rumbles, and other types of vocalizations. 

The scientists used 437 calls from 99 individual elephants to train a machine-learning model (as a computer algorithm is often better than the human ear at detecting patterns) to identify the recipient of each call. The model learned patterns in the calls associated with the recipients’ identities. This machine-learning model identified a recipient for 27.5 percent of the calls, indicating that some rumbles contained information that allowed the model to identify the intended recipient of the call. How cool is that!

To confirm their theory, the scientists played 17 elephants a recording of a call originally addressed to them, assuming their name was somewhere in the call, and then played those same elephant calls thought to be addressing someone else. Rumbles with their names in it had elephants approaching the speaker 128 seconds sooner, vocalizing 87 seconds sooner, and produced 2.3 times more vocalizations, telling researchers that elephants can determine whether a call was meant for them just by hearing the call out of context. 

This breakthrough with elephants confirms that we’re still very much learning about the animals with whom we share this world. Very few non-human animal vocalizations have been studied where the “foundation of human language” is present, though some species have been known to have individually distinctive calls for specific animals in their population.

Bottlenose dolphins, for instance, are capable of vocal production learning and have been known to develop their own unique identity signal called “the signature whistle,” which encodes individual identity independently of voice features. These signature whistles are learned, comparable to humans learning our own names as we age.

The study that proved this was done on bottlenose dolphins in the wild, where dolphins were responding to hearing a copy of their own signature whistle, while not responding to whistles that were not their own signature. This highlights that one of the main features of human language—labeling or naming—is not unique to us as a species!

Other species that can develop their own individually distinctive calls, similar to names or signature whistles, include songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, bats, pinnipeds, and other cetacean species. 

The more we learn about wild animals and the communities they form, the more heartbreaking it is that those bonds are broken in captive environments. Elephants, for instance, are torn from their mother’s sides as calves in order to be cruelly tortured during “the crush” to perform for entertainment or otherwise directly interact with humans.

Orcas, the largest species of dolphins, have been documented making heartbreaking long-range calls when their calves are taken from them trying to reach them. In the documentary Blackfish and in his book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, former killer whale trainer John Hargrove discussed the undeniable grief of Kasatka when her daughter Takara was removed from her tank at SeaWorld and transferred to another entertainment park. This is not the only instance where this has been documented as removing calves and transferring them to other marine parks is routine. 

Captivity for wild animals causes intense emotional distress. World Animal Protection has been working to end animal cruelty for over 50 years and urges everyone who loves animals to respect them by never visiting a venue keeping wild animals captive for entertainment.

Thanks to your support, we’ve been able to rescue elephants from entertainment venues, pass legislation to stop animal cruelty at its source, and educate the public about the horrors these animals go through so they can ensure never to support venues profiting from animal cruelty. Please help us continue our work of ending animal cruelty and suffering around the world by giving a donation today.

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