'Name' Discovery Surprises Elephant Researchers

Study suggests the animals call each other by name via low rumblings
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 10, 2024 2:19 PM CDT
Elephants Seem to Call Each Other by Name
An African elephant matriarch in northern Kenya with two younger elephants.   (George Wittemyer via AP)

A new study suggests a remarkable trait of elephants: They appear to call each other by distinct names, which would be a first in the animal kingdom outside humans, reports the New York Times. Researchers studying elephants at two national reserves in Kenya suggest that the animals voice the names in low rumbling sounds—not loud trumpets—that carry across the savannah. The researchers lay out their case in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Because the rumblings are difficult for the human ear to make sense of, the scientists used a tool powered by artificial intelligence to assess them.

They were soon able to differentiate rumblings and assign them to particular elephants, though they are not sure which part of the rumbling contains the "name," per NPR. However, when they played recordings back to particular elephants, the animals seemed to know when they were being addressed. "I was super excited," co-author Dr. Mickey Pardo of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells the Times. "Especially when we got the playback results, because I think that's the strongest piece of evidence that the elephants can actually tell, just from hearing the call, if it was intended for them or not, and they respond more strongly to the calls that were originally directed to them."

Some animals including dolphins and parrots appear to address each other using distinctive sounds, but they aren't thought to be "names" as we humans think of them—instead, the dolphins and parrots are repeating sounds frequently made by the addressee. The elephants, on the other hand, appear to take things to a different level, which makes sense to Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who was not involved in the study. "If you're looking after a large family, you've got to be able to say, 'Hey, Virginia, get over here!'" he tells the AP. (More elephants stories.)

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