African Elephants appear to address each other with unique ‘names’.

New research reveals that African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) communicate with each other using individual-specific calls, similar to human names. 

The study used machine-learning techniques to analyse 469 rumbling calls from wild African elephant female-offspring groups. The recordings were collected in Amboseli National Park, Samburu, and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya over a period from 1986 to 2022.

The machine-learning model demonstrated an ability to correctly identify the intended recipient of 27.5 per cent of the calls. 

This suggests that elephants may use specific calls to address one another individually, without simply imitating the sounds of the recipient, as some other animals do.

Further experiments involved playing these recorded calls back to 17 wild elephants. 

The elephants' responses provided additional evidence supporting the hypothesis that these calls function as names. 

Elephants approached the speaker more quickly and were more likely to respond vocally when the call was originally addressed to them.

One notable observation involved a family of elephants known to researchers as the ‘Spice Girls’. 

These elephants displayed clear recognition of calls directed towards them, approaching the source faster and responding more actively. 

The discovery that elephants use unique calls to address each other expands the understanding of their social complexity. 

Similar behaviours have been observed in dolphins and parrots, which imitate sounds made by the recipient of their calls. However, the elephant calls appear to be distinct and non-imitative, aligning them closer to the human use of names.

The researchers say that further study is needed to explore the contexts in which these name-like calls are used. 

The full study is accessible here.