Nairobi, June 11, 2024 — A groundbreaking study, a collaborative effort between researchers from Save the Elephants, Colorado State University, and ElephantVoices, has revealed a fascinating similarity between African elephants and humans. The study found that elephants in Kenya use individually specific calls, “vocal labels,” to communicate, a behaviour previously only observed in humans.

The study, published on June 10 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, presents a novel perspective on animal cognition and the evolution of language. It suggests that elephants, like humans, have developed sophisticated mechanisms for individually addressing family members and associates, likely due to standard features in their social environments.

Researchers analysed calls from wild elephants in Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, compiling a dataset of 469 distinct calls. They identified 101 unique callers and 117 unique receivers. Using a machine learning algorithm known as a Random Forest, the team found distinctive “vocal labels” similar to names. When these calls were played back, elephants responded energetically to those addressed to them, supporting the existence of vocal labels. Calls meant for others elicited less enthusiasm.

Lead author Mickey Pardo explained, “Our study shows that elephants use specific vocalisations for each individual and recognise and react to calls addressed to them. This indicates they can determine whether a call is meant for them just by hearing it, even when out of context.”

The study also found that calls containing vocal labels were more common among elephants communicating over long distances or adults addressing calves. Adults were likelier than juveniles to use vocal labels, suggesting that elephants take years to learn to address each other by name.

Joyce Poole, Scientific Director of ElephantVoices, noted, “Over the years, I’ve observed particular elephants’ calls answered excitedly by family members, while others were ignored. This study confirms that elephants can address one another by name.”

Interestingly, the study found that elephant names are not imitations of the receiver’s vocalisations, a feature that distinguishes human language. George Wittemyer, senior author of the study, said, “The evidence that elephants use non-imitative sounds to label others indicates they have the ability for abstract thought.”

The findings of this study hold significant implications for elephant conservation. Researchers can develop more effective strategies for protecting these intelligent creatures by gaining a deeper understanding of elephant communication. Pardo emphasised, “This study opens up new avenues of inquiry about the evolution of language. If further research confirms that elephants create unique names for each other, it will raise intriguing questions about the parallels between human and elephant communication.”

Save the Elephants’ CEO, Frank Pope, commented, “Elephants and humans are separated by a hundred million years of evolution, yet we have converged on many aspects of our lives. AI is helping to open up a new frontier in our understanding of the natural world. That elephants use names for one another is likely just the beginning of new revelations.”

 For more information, the study is available at Nature Ecology & Evolution