As elephants roam the vast African savannah, they appear to have a unique way of staying connected with their relatives. Researchers have discovered that wild savannah elephants in Kenya use specific vocal sounds to label each other, enabling communication within the herd. Although the research is yet to undergo peer review, the findings, if verified and reproduced, would make elephants the only non-human animals known to communicate using distinct names. While bottlenose dolphins can also use individual “names” to establish social networks, scientists assert that this is slightly different from human communication. 

Unlike human names, which are often reflections of cultural practices and values, elephant names rely on imitation of unique noises. This seemingly arbitrary nature of human naming appears to apply to elephants as well, as behavioral ecologist Michael Pardo from Colorado State University explains in a lecture available on YouTube, stating that these findings have the potential to “blur the line” between unique features of human language and those found in animal communication systems.

The Complex Communication System of Elephants

Elephants are renowned for their loud, trumpet-like vocalizations, although most of their communication is beyond the range of human hearing. Instead, these large mammals primarily produce low-frequency rumbles that can travel as far as six kilometers and resonate through the feet of other elephants. This hidden language serves as a vital tool for elephants as they spend the majority of their time foraging for food. It is not uncommon for members of the herd to lose sight of one another while searching for sustenance, making calling each other by their names a useful way to maintain group cohesion.

To investigate this possibility further, Pardo and his colleagues conducted extensive recordings of elephant rumbles in the wild at two different locations in Kenya. The team amassed a collection of 625 rumbles, including contact rumbles exchanged when elephants were in proximity to each other and greeting rumbles that occurred when elephants reunited after a period apart.

Researchers employed a machine learning model to analyze various features of these rumbles, successfully predicting the intended recipient of the rumble. The results indicate that certain rumbles were specific to individual receivers, and they did not rely on imitation. To validate this further, scientists played back some of these rumbles to 17 wild elephants, observing that individuals responded more quickly and vocally when they heard their own “name” being played. Additionally, consistent vocal labels were used across the herd, indicating that these names were not restricted to broad societal roles.

The Significance of Elephant “Names”

The study found that approximately one-fifth of all recorded elephant rumbles in Kenya were identified as individual vocal labels, similar to how human names are used. Just like in human communication, names may not always be necessary or may serve as a part of a larger message. Elephant rumbles convey a wide range of information, including age, sex, and emotional state. In certain situations, these factors might take precedence over addressing an individual by name.

According to the researchers of the study, “elephant vocal labels may be embedded within a call that simultaneously conveys multiple additional messages.” The richness of information in elephant vocalizations makes it challenging to identify the specific acoustic parameters that encode receiver identification.

The Role of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a crucial role in advancing our understanding of animal communication. AI programs have demonstrated their ability to analyze complex aspects of how animals like elephants communicate. This means they can help us grasp the subtle details of their social interactions. In the future, AI might enable researchers to identify and respond to individual elephants by recognizing their unique vocalizations, essentially understanding and addressing them by their names. This development holds great potential for enhancing our knowledge of how these animals communicate with each other. Ultimately, AI allows us to decode and interpret the intricate communication systems of animals like elephants, potentially leading to more effective conservation efforts and a deeper appreciation of the rich world of animal language.

Elephants’ ability to use vocal labels to communicate is a testament to the complex and sophisticated nature of their social interactions. This study not only highlights the unique features of elephant communication but also showcases the potential of artificial intelligence in unraveling the mysteries of animal language. As we continue to study and appreciate the wonders of the animal kingdom, we gain a deeper understanding of the diverse ways in which living creatures communicate and navigate their world.