Article image

Elephants call each other by names and may be the first non-humans to do so

Human societies assign significant importance to names, and all languages have them. While forming an integral part of our identity, they also facilitate communication. 

Although personal names have always been considered exclusive to humans, a recent study led by the Colorado State University has now suggested that wild African elephants might use distinct calls – the equivalent of elephant names – to identify each other, paving the way for novel insights into language evolution.

Focus of the study 

This amazing study, currently available only as a preprint and awaiting peer review, examined the calls of wild elephants from two Kenyan regions: the expansive Samburu ecosystem in the north and the southern Amboseli National Park. 

In the dataset, we gathered 625 calls, and family groups exchanged 597 of them within the same group. The study identified 114 unique initiators and 119 unique recipients of these calls. The analysis was confined to calls aimed at a single individual elephant, thus ensuring the recipient’s identification — the elephant’s name.

Acoustic characteristics 

To determine if the call could predict the receiving elephant’s identity, the researchers assessed the elephants’ acoustic characteristics and subjected the data to a series of statistical tests. 

The findings were compelling. According to the study’s lead author, “receivers of calls could be correctly identified from call structure statistically significantly better than chance.”

Vocal labels from elephant communication

Moreover, the researchers investigated if the calls mirrored the recipient’s own vocal patterns. Such phenomena, where creatures recognize and react to their vocal tag, are evident in species like dolphins. 

However, in the case of elephants, something unprecedented occurred: the callers did not seem to be replicating the recipient’s call. Thus, this study provides the first evidence for vocal addressing of conspecifics without imitation of the receiver’s calls in nonhuman animals.

Recorded calls

The experts also selected 17 elephants and played recordings of calls addressed to them to observe their responses.

“Further supporting the existence of vocal labels, subjects approached the speaker more quickly and vocalized more quickly in response to test playbacks than control playbacks,” the authors reported.

The elephants’ social structures offer some insights into this amazing behavior, which could be the first evidence of a non-human species using a naming system akin to humans to refer to their conspecifics. 

Social dynamics of elephant names

“Due to their fission-fusion social dynamics, elephants are often out of sight of their closely bonded social partners and produce contact rumbles to communicate over long distances,” the authors explained, referring to elephants’ tendency to segregate themselves into smaller units, which occasionally come together to form massive assemblies, often larger than one hundred individuals. 

Study implications 

Although vocal labels might enhance their coordination when they can’t see each other, they only used them in a minority of vocalizations. This is most likely because in many contexts there is no need to employ them. Finally, calling each other by their names could also play a major role in fostering social connections, as it happens between humans.

The findings, published as a preprint on bioRxiv, raise important questions about the complexity of elephant social cognition, offering new insights into the fascinating and unique behaviors of this species.

More about elephant communication 

Elephants are highly social animals and communicate in various ways. Understanding these communication methods provides valuable insights into elephant behavior and can aid in conservation efforts.

Vocal sounds

Elephants produce a wide range of sounds, the most famous being trumpeting. People use this to signal distress, anger, excitement, or call for attention for various reasons.


Elephants produce infrasonic sounds, which are low-frequency sounds below the range of human hearing. These can travel long distances, allowing elephants to communicate with each other over several kilometers. Such communications can convey information about estrous cycles, potential threats, or coordinating movements among herds.

Tactile communication

Touch is an essential form of communication among elephants. They use their trunks to greet, comfort, or play with each other. Physical contact helps in reinforcing bonds within the group.

Visual signals

Body posture, ear flapping, tail raising, and other physical displays can signal various emotions and intentions. For example, an elephant flapping its ears can be a sign of aggression or agitation.

Chemical communication

Elephants have a keen sense of smell and use it for communication. They can detect pheromones released by other elephants and gather information about their reproductive status or emotional state.

Seismic communication

Recent research suggests that elephants might detect vibrations in the ground produced by other elephants’ vocalizations, potentially serving as another long-distance communication channel.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day