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Elephants Have Names and Respond to Direct Communication, Study Finds

If you tell an elephant your name, it will never forget.

By Cassidy Ward
Profile image of a young African bull elephant with mouth open.

It’s a little weird, when you stop to think about it, that we live on a planet filled with all kinds of life, much of which is seemingly intelligent, and we have almost no idea what they are thinking. It’s not for a lack of trying. Our fictions are filled with stories of talking animals, imaginings of their inner lives which often mirror our own.

Garth Jennings’ 2016 animated family film Sing (now available from Universal Pictures) takes place in the fictional city of Calatonia, where anthropomorphic animals of all kinds live together. A koala named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) owns a struggling theater and gets the bright idea to host a singing competition, hoping to get some new blood through the door. A misprint in the flyers turns a humble $1,000 cash prize into a life-changing $100,000 jackpot that Moon can’t hope to pay.

Every critter in town crawls out of the proverbial woodwork to shoot their shot at fame and fortune, resulting in a star-studded night of vocal performances from the likes of Rosita the pig (Reese Witherspoon), a punk rock porcupine named Ash (Scarlett Johansson), and a teenaged elephant named Meena (Tori Kelly). We might have a tough time imagining a pig or a porcupine holding a conversation, let alone belting out a ballad, but elephants have the pipes and the brains to pull it off. Now, a team of real-world scientists have revealed that not only do elephants vocalize to one another, they even have names.

For More on Animal Communication:
To Communicate, Most Birds Sing, but Woodpeckers Play the Drums
Gorillas are Inventing New Words for Communicating with Humans
Aquaman Doesn't Need Psychic Powers, Fish Use Their Voices Just Like We Do

New Study Reveals that Elephants Call One Another by Name

Two male African elephants play with each other

A new study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution reveals that elephants use personalized vocalizations to address specific individuals. These calls appear to serve a similar function for elephants as names do in human languages.

Outside of our own species, only a few creatures are known to use something like names. Some parrots mimic the individual calls of their peers to address them, and dolphins have their own unique identifiers. They develop signature calls to identify themselves when they are young, and then others in their pods recreate those calls to address them. While many organisms communicate in some form or fashion, the sorts of complexity which gives rise to naming appears to be uncommon. Michael Pardo, a behavioral ecologist at Cornell University, suspected that elephant communication might meet that threshold and set out to find out.

It’s been a project decades in the making. Pardo and colleagues used recordings of African elephants taken between 1986 and 2022 in laboratory studies and field experiments. The team fed 469 recordings of female African elephants communicating with their offspring into a machine learning algorithm and asked it to identify who was being addressed. It was able to correctly identify the addressee about 27% of the time. That might not sound all that impressive, but it tells us a few important things. First, it tells us there’s still a lot we need to learn about elephant communication, but it also tells us that there is discernible information encoded inside elephant vocalizations and that they are directed toward an individual.

The next step was taking their findings into the field to see how elephants behave. They collected the recordings identified by their algorithm, played them for the elephants, and watched their reactions. When an elephant was addressed directly in a recording, they behaved differently. They reacted more quickly, were more vocal, and moved toward the speaker. When hearing a call directed toward others, they would often look up but not respond or move.

The observed elephant behavior suggests they know when someone is talking to them and when they are just overhearing errant conversation. The discovery is an exciting piece of the elephant communication puzzle, but scientists note that more research is needed to understand how elephants are encoding information in their calls and what information is there. We can’t quite tell what they are singing, but we know they are singing to one another.

Catch Sing and Sing 2, available now from Universal Pictures.

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