Elephants Call Each Other By Names, New Study Says – The First Non-Humans Found to Do So

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A new study says elephants are the first animals other than humans to be found calling each other by name.

A new study by researchers from Colorado State University and other schools makes the shocking discovery that elephants have a sophisticated way of talking to each other: they call each other by their names. With this new skill, elephants are the first animals other than humans that can use specific vocal sounds to find and talk to their social partners without copying their calls.

As of now, the work has not been reviewed by other scientists. It was about wild African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) in Kenya’s Samburu and Amboseli regions. After recording and analysing 625 calls, the researchers found that 20.3% of them had sounds that were similar to those of specific people. For the most part, the elephants were referring to each other by voice labels, which is similar to how people call each other by name.

Calling mom who is called Mom. Photo: Lili Koslowksi

To be even more sure of their results, the researchers played back recordings of calls to 17 elephants and watched how the animals responded. The elephants reacted faster and more often to the test playbacks than to the control playbacks, which shows they could remember their names.

The study was important because it showed that these calls were unique to each elephant and not just random sounds. There were similarities in the calls even when different people called the same listener. The researchers say this is because elephant rumbles are complicated and encode multiple messages at once. This makes it hard for the computer model used in the study to figure out which “name” was used in each call.

Young elephants running in Tsavo National Park, Kenya. Photo: Byrdyak

An elephant biologist at Harvard University Medical School named Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell emphasised how important the work was, even though she wasn’t involved in it. She said it shows how elephants can move through large areas while still talking to specific people, which shows a level of intelligence beyond simple signalling.

Dolphins and parrots interact by imitating other birds’ calls, but elephants seem to have a way of calling that doesn’t depend on imitating other calls. This unique method is especially useful for elephants’ fission-fusion social dynamics, in which they often split up and rejoin different subgroups, needing a way to talk that goes beyond copying calls.

The study changes the way we think about how language evolved and how people and other animals talk to each other. The elephants’ wide range of vocalisations that let them talk about themselves, others, their social ties, and their feelings adds a new level of complexity to our knowledge of how different species talk to each other.

A herd of bush elephants, in Amboseli national park, south Kenya, where part of the research was conducted. Photo: Benh LIEU SONG

Now that these amazing results are public, the experts hope that their work will lead to more research on how elephants think and talk. They also stress how important it is to protect these endangered animals and their environments through conservation efforts. This is because we need to keep the unique and complex ways that elephants talk to each other in the wild.

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