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Elephants Give Each Other Names, New Study Claims

African savannah elephants in Kenya were showcasing their unique form of communication
African savannah elephants in Kenya showcased their unique form of communication. In a study, researchers concluded the animals have elephant names for each other. Credit: Peter Steward / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

In a recent report, scientists revealed African savannah elephants have a unique way of getting each other’s attention. Specifically, they have elephant names in the form of rumbling sounds, and other elephants understand these.

What is even more interesting is that when an elephant makes a specific sound, the others respond as if they have heard their own name. This finding sets elephants apart as the first animals aside from humans that seem to have unique names for each other.

Unlike dolphins and parrots, which mimic the sounds of their friends, elephants have their own individual calls.  Other animals might make sounds to point out things like predators or food, but these are instinctual rather than learned.

Details of the study on elephants

In a recent study, scientists observed and recorded 527 elephant calls in the greater Samburu ecosystem in northern Kenya and 98 calls in the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya.

By making note of which female elephants and offspring were separated from the herd during calls and which responded by approaching, researchers identified unique rumbles for 119 individual elephants.

Using a computer model, scientists successfully determined the recipients of 20.3 percent of the 625 recorded calls. This discovery represents progress in understanding how these incredibly smart animals communicate.

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, an elephant biologist at Harvard University Medical School who was not involved in the study, shared insights: “There’s a contact rumble, there’s an anti-predator rumble, there’s a greeting rumble. If you look at a spectrogram, they all look almost exactly the same…”

She further added that “that’s why AI has been exciting. It allows us to really figure out what the elephants are honing in on.”

Unique rumblings for specific elephant points to elephant names

Interestingly, the elephant calls weren’t general sounds meant for, let’s say, younger elephants or mothers. They were unique to each specific elephant.

Even when different elephants called the same specific animal, the sounds were alike, although it was less clear than when a single caller addressed a specific receiver.

Researchers suggest these rumbles might carry multiple messages at once, making it challenging for the computer model to identify the exact “name” used in each call, as explained in the study.

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell commented on this complexity, saying, “It just highlights the complexity of what’s going on. And we’re not skilled enough at what those measurements should be to figure out what’s going on.”

Elephant reactions to certain recordings

Researchers discovered that elephants reacted more actively to recordings of calls specifically meant for them in comparison to calls directed at other elephants. This provides additional evidence for their findings on elephant names.

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell emphasized the significance of the study, stating, “The real value of this paper is that it shows how elephants are navigating through a large landscape and can still keep in touch with specific individuals.”

She added, “It allows them to spread out much further and still have very close tabs on individuals, not just the group. It’s not just like, I’m sending out a ping. Somebody else is sending out a ping. It’s much more sophisticated than that.”

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