Researchers studying elephants have observed an intriguing behavior: sometimes, when an elephant vocalizes to a group, all respond, while at other times, only one responds. This suggests elephants may use a form of identification akin to a name. A recent study in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and Samburu National Reserve supports this idea. By analyzing the vocalizations of over 100 wild African savannah elephants, researchers identified a name-like component in these calls, indicating a specific elephant as the intended recipient. Using a machine-learning model, they tested how elephants reacted to calls apparently meant for them versus those for others. The results showed elephants responded more vigorously to calls directed at them, displaying increased enthusiasm, approaching the sound’s source, and emitting more vocalizations.

Lead author Mickey Pardo from Cornell University suggests the findings imply elephants address one another with names, emphasizing the animals’ ability to establish and maintain social bonds. He highlights the cognitive complexity needed for elephants to associate sounds with individual identities and capture the attention of specific elephants. This underscores the significance of social connections among elephants, emphasizing their multifaceted communication and social interactions. Conservation biologist George Wittemyer, a study co-author from Colorado State University, notes that such vocalizations are common during contact calls and interactions between mothers and calves. While rare, the use of individual-specific vocal labels resembling names has been observed in other species like dolphins and parrots. However, elephants’ names appear to be more arbitrary rather than mere imitations of sounds made by the addressee, suggesting a level of abstract thought among elephants. Despite this, significant progress is needed to decipher the syntax and encoding of information in elephant vocalizations before meaningful communication with humans can occur.