Elephants seem to use personalized calls to address members of their group, providing a rare example of naming in animals other than humans.

“There’s a lot more sophistication in animal lives than we are typically aware,” says Michael Pardo, a behavioural ecologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Elephants’ communication may be even more complex than we previously realized.”

Other than humans, few animals give each other names. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and orange-fronted parakeets (Eupsittula canicularis) are known to identify each other by mimicking the signature calls of those they are addressing. By contrast, humans use names that have no inherent association with the people, or objects, they’re referring to. Pardo had a hunch that elephants might also have a name for each other, because of their extensive vocal communication and rich social relationships.

To find out, Pardo and his colleagues recorded, between 1986 and 2022, the deep rumbles of wild female African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and their offspring in Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, and in the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in the country’s north. The findings were published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution1.

The researchers analysed recordings of 469 rumbles using a machine-learning technique. The model correctly identified which elephant was being addressed 27.5% of the time — a much higher success rate than when the model was fed with random audio as a control. This suggests that the rumbles carry information that is intended only for a specific elephant.

Next, Pardo and his colleagues played recordings of these calls to 17 elephants and compared their reactions. The elephants became more vocal and moved more quickly towards the speaker when they heard their ‘name’ compared with when they heard rumbles directed at other elephants. “They could tell if a call was addressed to them just by hearing that call,” says Pardo.

The findings are a “very promising start”, although more evidence is needed to confirm whether elephants do indeed call each other by name, says Hannah Mumby, a behavioural and evolutionary ecologist at the University of Hong Kong. She adds that understanding elephants’ social relationships and the role of each individual in the group is important for conservation efforts. “Conserving elephants goes far beyond population numbers,” says Mumby.

The next question for the team involves working out how elephants encode information in their calls. That would “open up a whole range of other questions we could ask”, says Pardo, such as whether elephants also name places or even talk about each other in the third person.