Elephants call each other by name across the savanna

Elephants call each other by name across the savanna

Marta Zaraska writes:

Humans have a long history of inventing names for elephants. There is Disney’s Dumbo, of course, and Jumbo, a 19th-century circus attraction, and Ruby, a famed painting elephant from the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. But new research suggests wild African elephants may pick their own names, too—and use them to call and greet one another on the savanna.

Most animals are born with a fixed set of sounds for communication. A few, such as songbirds, can imitate other sounds they hear around them. Certain species of dolphins and parrots may learn to mimic human words for objects in their environment (like the proverbial Polly who wants a cracker). Much rarer, however, is an ability to assign vocal labels—something akin to names—to fellow members of the flock or pod. Bottlenose dolphins and orange-fronted parakeets are thought to address peers with specific calls, to which a unique receiver tends to react. But in these cases, the calls consist of one animal simply imitating the features of another’s habitual or trademark sound. (It’s as if someone went around constantly repeating their own name, like “Mark,” and you mimicked it back at them.) A dolphin may copy another dolphin’s “signature whistle” to attract its attention, and the second animal will respond by repeating that very same whistle.

Now a study in Nature Ecology and Evolution reveals that African elephants engage in a type of communication previously unknown in nonhuman animals. Researchers used machine learning to analyze 469 contact, greeting and caregiving rumbles made by wild savanna elephants in Kenya and discovered that the animals use specific vocal labels to identify one another. Instead of imitating an individual’s signature call to signal a particular elephant’s identity, they come up with an original sound. [Continue reading…]

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