Elephants have names for each other, new scientific study finds

Scientists have discovered elephants address each other by name, particularly when adults communicate with calves  (Jack Lawes )
Scientists have discovered elephants address each other by name, particularly when adults communicate with calves (Jack Lawes )

Researchers have discovered that elephants have personalised calls for addressing each other, suggesting that they have unique names.

An incredible new study used machine learning and in-depth observations to conclude that elephants are identified by names, similar to how humans are.

Unlike dolphins and parrots that imitate others from their species when addressing them, this could mark the first observed instance of an animal using names without mimicry.

The study, published this week in the Nature, Ecology & Evolution journal, analysed the calls between wild African elephants in the Savanna.

Their findings found that the elephants didn’t just recognize their calls but also reacted to calls addressed to them while ignoring those that weren’t.

"Dolphins and parrots call one another by 'name' by imitating the signature call of the addressee," explained the study’s lead author, Michael Pardo.

Wild Asian elephants enjoy the water closer to residents in Sri Lanka (Jack Lawes)
Wild Asian elephants enjoy the water closer to residents in Sri Lanka (Jack Lawes)

"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."

The study also led to more exciting conclusions about communication between elephants, leading scientists to suspect that the mammals are capable of abstract thought and can learn and produce new sounds.

“There’s a lot more sophistication in animal lives than we are typically aware,” Pardo added. “Elephants’ communication may be even more complex than we previously realized.”

According to George Wittemyer, co-author of the study, elephants’ abilities to develop this level of communication probably stem from their complex social interactions.

Most elephants usually live in herds and family units and share intricate social structures with other elephants. They’ve been known to show emotion, remember faces and have complex communication systems to coordinate their groups.

With knowledge of this, the scientists played back elephant ‘naming’ sounds to members of the herd in order to come to their conclusion.

"They were probably temporarily confused by the playback but eventually just dismissed it as a strange event and went on with their lives," the researchers admitted about replaying the naming sounds to the herd.

An Elephant with her calf (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Archive)
An Elephant with her calf (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Archive)

It showed that elephants were enthusiastic and responsive when addressed with their names, while unresponsive if they were played the ‘name’ of another elephant.

Incredibly, they also discovered that - much like humans - elephants don’t always use names in conversations and tend to do so only when communicating over long distances or between an adult and a young calf.

Previous studies have also uncovered that elephants vary what they eat for dinner, displaying further similarities between themselves and humans.

It’s estimated that there are just 415,000 African elephants and 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.

Climate change, poaching, the ivory trade, and encroaching human settlements have led to a significant decline in the number of elephants in the wild over the last few decades. Both species are considered vulnerable or endangered, and there are concerns about the future survival of elephant herds around the world.

While the recent study is indeed promising, the technology they used has limitations, and it doesn’t mean we’ll be talking to elephants any time soon.

However, Wittemyer did add that he hopes to one day help elephants avoid places where humans reside: “I'd like to be able to warn them, 'Do not come here. You're going to be killed if you come here’.”