A new study using AI has revealed that elephants call out to each other using individual names that they invent, the first time this has been unveiled in any species besides humans. 

The study, titled “African savannah elephants call one another by ‘name’”, was published on 10th June 2024 in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. The authors, comprising researchers from the US, Kenya, and Norway, said, “Using a combination of machine learning and playback experiments in the field, we find that African savannah elephants address members of their family with individually specific, name-like calls. These ‘names’ are probably not imitative of the receiver’s calls, which is similar to human naming but unlike known phenomena in other animals.”

Researchers used AI algorithms to analyse the calls of herds of African savannah elephants in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park between 1986 and 2022. Using a machine-learning algorithm, they identified 469 distinct calls, which included 101 elephants issuing a call and 117 receiving one. The researchers found that when names were called out, it was often over a long distance, and when adults were addressing young elephants. Elephants responded positively and energetically when a recording of their friend or family member calling out their name was played, but this reaction was not observed when the names of others were played. Interestingly, young elephants were less likely to use names, suggesting that this language skill may take years to learn.

Michael Pardo, the lead author from Colorado State University, said to The Guardian that the study “not only shows that elephants use specific vocalisations for each individual, but that they recognise and react to a call addressed to them while ignoring those addressed to others… This indicates that elephants can determine whether a call was intended for them just by hearing the call, even when out of its original context.”

Jordi Casamitjana
“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.