Credit: Save The Elephants

Study: Elephants Give Each Other Names Just Like Humans Do

Researchers say elephants use “vocal labels” to refer to each other. In other words, they give each other names.

A group of researchers published a study this week saying elephants use "vocal labels" to refer to each other. In other words, they give each other names.

In an announcement, Dr. Mickey Pardo, the lead author of the study, explained that the findings pave the way for a deeper understanding of elephant thinking and communication.

"This opens up exciting new avenues of inquiry about the evolution of language," Pardo said. He added that the findings "will raise fascinating questions about why humans and elephants have evolved such a uniquely flexible means of communicating."

How they discovered elephant names

For the study, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, researchers analyzed calls from wild elephants in two areas of Kenya. They made recordings in Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. And out of the 469 calls, they identified 101 unique callers and 117 unique receivers.

Next, they plugged the data into a machine learning algorithm called "Random Forest," which uncovered the distinct "vocal label." When they played the calls back, the corresponding elephant responded "energetically." And when they played a different vocal label, it would respond with "less enthusiasm."

"This indicates that elephants can determine whether a call was intended for them just by hearing the call, even when out of its original context," Pardo said.

He added that elephants use vocal labels much like humans do, meaning they don't always use them during face-to-face conversations. Instead, they typically only use names when communicating over long distances or to address individuals in groups.

Maybe they're just imitating each other

In the study, researchers compared elephants to animals like dolphins and parrots, which can also form vocal labels. Unlike those animals, though, the "elephant names did not appear to be imitations of the receiver's own vocalizations."

However, the researchers also called their findings "very preliminary," meaning they just beginning to understand this elephant language.

Professor George Whittemyer, a senior author of the study, described "elephant vocalizations" as "incredibly information-rich," which makes them challenging to decode.

"This has literally limited our ability to understand elephants, perhaps in part leading to the challenges we are having with their protection," Whittemyer said. "Unlocking their communication can open doors to understanding the way elephant minds work."