New research suggests elephants give each other names

Researchers in Kenya have discovered elephants seem to call each other by individual names, the first time this has been recorded in non-humans.

A group of elephants in the wild - two adults and a baby

Elephants in Amboseli National Park © Amboseli Trust for Elephants

With the help of our long-term colleagues at Amboseli Trust for Elephants – supported by Born Free for over 30 years – scientists have discovered that elephants use low, rumbling complex calls to address each other with individual ‘names’. 

“Most of us consider naming to be something uniquely human,” said Joe Hedges, from Born Free’s conservation team. “We seem almost obsessed with assigning everything a name, including each other!” The names humans use are ‘non-imitative’ – unrelated to the way things sound – and had been thought to be unique to humans. Dolphins and parrots can imitate the calls of the individual they address to get their attention but, this is quite different to using an actual name.

Yet, this new research suggests such naming may not be unique to humans. For the first time, it has been shown that ‘non-imitative’ vocalisations to address specific individuals are used by not only humans but elephants as well.

Using 527 recordings from Samburu, and 98 recordings from Amboseli, Kenya, researchers found that African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) will change the structure of their rumbling vocalisations depending on the individual they are communicating with, giving them a unique vocal label. These calls are not simply an imitation of the vocalisation of the intended listener, but are unique sounds associated with that individual elephant – in effect a name! The study also showed that elephants recognise and respond to their own names. The Amboseli Trust for Elephants, a Born Free partner since 1992, assisted in the collection of the recordings in Amboseli.

Elephant herds are known to spread out over large distances when searching for food and water. Individuals may not always be in sight of the rest of their herd and communicate using low and complex rumbles that can travel for several miles. The researchers of this study believe the use of names may help elephants more effectively keep in contact with different members of their herd and know where each other is. Similar to humans, the use of names when communicating may help strengthen the bond between individual elephants.

“We’ve known for many years that elephants inhabit a sensory world far removed from our own, dominated by sound and smell,” explained Dr Vicki Fishlock, from Amboseli Trust for Elephants. “This research shows how much we still don’t know – although elephants are well known as intelligent and social, their size and the scale of the habitats they use makes it hard to study some aspects of how they think about their world. This research brings us a step closer to understanding more about the richness of their social lives, and therefore more about what they need in order to thrive.”

Elephants giving each other names is hugely significant news as it is, to the researchers’ knowledge, the first demonstration of what appears to be the use of names in a species other than humans. It highlights the incredible intelligence of elephants, reminding us how much we still have so much to learn about these magnificent animals.

It also reminds us why we must do everything to conserve elephant populations.

Help us give Hope for Elephants, by donating today to allow us to continue protecting elephants in their natural habitat in Amboseli and Meru.