top of page


Researchers have discovered that elephants use individual names to call each other, a groundbreaking revelation in animal communication. This finding was made possible by analysing the calls of two herds of African savanna elephants in Kenya using an artificial intelligence algorithm.

While dolphins and parrots are known to address each other by mimicking sounds, elephants are the first non-human animals observed to use unique names without imitation, the study suggests.

The international research team, whose study was published on Monday, utilised AI to analyse the calls of elephants in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. The lead author, Michael Pardo, a behavioural ecologist at Colorado State University, stated, "This research 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."

The study involved examining elephant "rumbles" recorded from 1986 to 2022. The AI algorithm identified 469 distinct calls, involving 101 elephants issuing a call and 117 receiving one. Elephants are known for a wide range of sounds, from loud trumpeting to low-frequency rumbles inaudible to humans.

The use of names was particularly noted over long distances and often involved adults addressing young elephants. Adults were more likely to use names than calves, suggesting that it might take years to master this ability. The most common call was described as "a harmonically rich, low-frequency sound," according to the study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

When researchers played recordings of an elephant's friend or family member calling out their name, the elephants responded positively and energetically. Conversely, they showed far less enthusiasm when hearing the names of others. Unlike parrots and dolphins, elephants did not imitate the call of the intended recipient, indicating that elephants and humans are unique in inventing arbitrary names for each other.

"The evidence provided here that elephants use non-imitative sounds to label others indicates they have the ability for abstract thought," said senior study author George Wittemyer.

The researchers emphasised the need for further study into the evolutionary origins of this name-calling ability, given that the ancestors of elephants diverged from primates and cetaceans about 90 million years ago.

Frank Pope, CEO of Save the Elephants, noted, "Despite our differences, humans and elephants share many similarities, such as extended family units with rich social lives, underpinned by highly developed brains. That elephants use names for one another is likely only the start of the revelations to come."

A herd of elephants by a water source
Herd of elephants


bottom of page