Like people, elephants use names for each other

A new study involving African elephants shows that elephants use names when communicating with each other, much as humans do. Video via Michael Pardo/ George Wittemyer/ Ron Bend/ CSU/ YouTube. Published here with permission.

  • Elephants in family units and social groups can identify each other by name, according to a new study from Colorado State University.
  • The elephants use new sounds for names instead of just imitating the sounds from other elephants. The use of specific names is rare among non-human animals. It’s thought, for example, that dolphins can use “names” also, but are basically mainly parroting what is said to them.
  • We may or may not ever be able to actually talk to elephants, but if we could, we could help warn them of dangers such as poachers.

Elephants use names for each other

Elephants are highly intelligent and expressive animals. They are very communicative within their family units and social groups. Now, there’s new evidence that elephants can communicate with each other by name. Researchers at Colorado State University (CSU), Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices worked together on a new study. They said on June 10, 2024, that they called wild African elephants by name … and the elephants called back.

The research team spent four years studying elephant vocalizations. As part of their work, they followed the elephants for 14 months and recorded them in Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, both in Kenya. Overall, the researchers captured 470 distinct calls from 101 unique callers. Those callers corresponded with 117 unique receivers.

The researchers published their fascinating peer-reviewed findings in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution on June 10, 2024.

Not just imitation

Some animal species, such as dolphins, also use “names” for each other. But in those cases, they are believed to be parroting what a human said to them. But the African elephants appeared not simply to imitate, but instead use arbitrary communication. That’s where a vocalized sound represents an idea, but doesn’t just imitate other sounds. It’s a new sound.

Michael Pardo is the lead author and NSF postdoctoral researcher at CSU and Save the Elephants. As he explained:

Dolphins and parrots call one another by ‘name’ by imitating the signature call of the addressee. By contrast, our data suggest that elephants do not rely on imitation of the receiver’s calls to address one another, which is more similar to the way in which human names work.

Arbitrary communication is uncommon

Arbitrary communication is uncommon among animals. But for those that can use it – humans of course, and now elephants – it greatly expands the ability to communicate. As co-author George Wittemyer, a professor at CSU, noted:

If all we could do was make noises that sounded like what we were talking about, it would vastly limit our ability to communicate.

The paper stated:

Personal names are a universal feature of human language, yet few analogues exist in other species. While dolphins and parrots address conspecifics by imitating the calls of the addressee, human names are not imitations of the sounds typically made by the named individual. Labeling objects or individuals without relying on imitation of the sounds made by the referent radically expands the expressive power of language.

The researchers used machine learning – a branch of artificial intelligence (AI) – to determine that the vocal calls the elephants made really were like names, and not just imitations of other sounds. They played back recorded calls to the elephants. And indeed, the elephants responded by either calling back or approaching the sound speaker. Notably, the elephants reacted less when a call was meant for other elephants.

In other words, an elephant knew when a call was meant specifically for itself.

Elephants use names: 3 large elephants standing next to each other in brownish dry grassland.
View larger. | Three female African bush elephants in Tanzania, East Africa. Amazingly, elephants use names when communicating with each other, just like people do. Image via Ikiwaner/ Wkimedia Commons (GFDL 1.2).

Why do elephants use names?

So why did elephants develop the ability to use arbitrary communication? The answer likely lies in the fact that elephants have complex social groups and family units, much like humans. The researchers said that this likely encouraged the development of using abstract sounds as names. Wittemyer said:

It’s probably a case where we have similar pressures, largely from complex social interactions. That’s one of the exciting things about this study, it gives us some insight into possible drivers of why we evolved these abilities.

And elephants’ communications are complex overall, too. They also use sight, scent and touch as well as vocalizations. With all of these, they can even discuss things like identity, age, sex, emotions and behavior with each other. Elephants’ vocalizations alone cover a wide spectrum, from trumpeting to low rumbling. They can even produce infrasonic sounds, which the human ear cannot hear. Think of a silent dog whistle.

The machine learning helped the researchers identify exactly which elephant that another elephant was calling to. As Kurt Fristrup, a research scientist in CSU’s Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, noted:

Our finding that elephants are not simply mimicking the sound associated with the individual they are calling was the most intriguing. The capacity to utilize arbitrary sonic labels for other individuals suggests that other kinds of labels or descriptors may exist in elephant calls.

Prank calling elephants

The researchers even tried prank calling the elephants. As previously mentioned, the elephants responded positively to audio recordings of other elephants in their families or clans. This meant they recognized the specific names. So the researchers then used recordings of elephant vocalizations that they did not know. As might happen with people, they initially seemed confused, Pardo said:

They were probably temporarily confused by the playback but eventually just dismissed it as a strange event and went on with their lives.

Interestingly, there are other dynamics involved as well. The elephants didn’t always use individual names. They usually did that when communicating over long distances or when adult elephants were talking to their young calves.

A new study involving African elephants shows that elephants use names when communicating with each other, just like humans do. Video via Michael Pardo/ SCU/ YouTube. Used with permission.

Do elephants use names for other things too?

Since elephants can use names for each other, could they do that also for other things they interact with on a daily basis? We don’t know yet. As Wittemyer put it:

Unfortunately, we can’t have them speak into microphones.

If we could though, what would they say? This brings up the possibility of one day being able to actually talk to elephants and converse with them. That day may be a long way off, if it ever comes. Wittemyer noted that if we somehow could talk to elephants, then we could help them survive. This is especially true regarding poaching and habitat loss. These magnificent animals are now listed as an endangered species. Wittemyer said:

It’s tough to live with elephants, when you’re trying to share a landscape and they’re eating crops. I’d like to be able to warn them, ‘Do not come here. You’re going to be killed if you come here.’

Bottom line: Elephants are highly intelligent and social animals. And now, a new study shows that elephants use names when communicating with each other, just like humans.

Source: African elephants address one another with individually specific name-like calls

Via Colorado State University

Read more: Do elephants make alarm call that means ‘humans!’?

Read more: Elephants reassure other elephants in distress

June 11, 2024

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