Hello: elephants talk to each other using name-like calls!

Wild African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) might address each other like humans – using personal “names” according to a new study in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Researchers used machine learning to analyse the recordings of 469 calls, “rumbles”, made by female–offspring groups in the Amboseli National Park and Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya between 1986 and 2022.

They also played the calls back to the elephants through a speaker and measured the time taken for the subject to approach it compared to a control call addressed to a different elephant.

Their model correctly predicted the intended target for 27.5% of the calls analysed, which was significantly better than chance. Elephants also responded more strongly, approaching significantly quicker and producing more vocalisations, in response to a playback of calls addressed to them compared to rumbles addressed to a different elephant.

Importantly, elephants do not appear to address other individuals by imitating the sounds they make.

A photograph of two young elephants greeting eachother by bringing their faces close together and touching trunks
Two juvenile elephants greet each other in SNR. Credit: George Wittemyer

“Personal names are a type of vocal label that refers to another individual,” the authors write.

“Names must involve vocal learning, as an individual cannot be born knowing the names for all its future social affiliates. Thus, non-human analogues of personal names are highly relevant to understanding the evolution of language and complex cognition.

“Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and orange-fronted parakeets (Eupsittula canicularis) address individual [members of the same species] by imitating the receiver’s ‘signature’ call, a sound that is most commonly produced by the receiver to broadcast their identity.

“Our data suggest that elephants may label conspecifics without relying on imitation of the receiver’s calls, a phenomenon previously known to occur only in human language.

“Our discovery of individual vocal labels in a species that diverged from both the primate and cetacean lineages approximately 90–100 million years ago provides an important opportunity to study the convergent evolution of unusually sophisticated communication.”

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