Wild African elephants address each other with name-like rumbling calls: study

Wild African elephants address each other with name-like rumbling calls: study
  • PublishedJune 11, 2024

African elephants are a highly social bunch with tonnes of different ways to communicate.

They greet each other by intertwining trunks and express strong emotions by trumpeting. They are even thought to send messages over large distances with ground-based vibrations, which could be detected through their feet.

Now researchers behind a new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution believe wild elephants may be able to communicate with other members of their group by using sounds akin to names.

Dolphins and some birds are reported to develop a signature call which other members of their species can used to identify them or copy to get their attention.

But Colorado State University behavioural ecologist Mickey Pardo, lead author of the new study, believes elephant calls are more similar to how humans use arbitrary names rather than imitations used by other species.

“Elephants are among the few mammals that are capable of learning to produce new sounds, which is a prerequisite for having names,” he said.

A man in a tan t-shirt takes a selfie in front of two elephants under some trees of an African plain with mountains in the back
Behavioural ecologist Mickey Pardo works with elephants in Kenya to understand how they communicate.(Supplied: Mickey Pardo)

Elephant talk 101

Human names are conveyed through speech, but an elephant “name” sounds a lot different.

One of an African elephant’s most common forms of communication are vocalisations known as rumbles, which can sound a bit like a growl or roar.

“It’s actually easier for elephants to learn to produce rumbles on command than it is for them to learn to produce trumpets on command,” Dr Pardo said.

To the inexperienced ear, elephant rumbles can sound the same or very similar, but Dr Pardo said that’s akin to an alien assuming humans have a modest vocal repertoire of crying, laughing, screaming or speech.

“If you thought about it that way, you would be missing all the interesting stuff about human communication,” he said.

Inspired by the work of behavioural biologist Stephanie King, who found dolphins could identify others by repeating signature calls, Dr Pardo wanted to dig deep into the rumbles of elephants, another big-brained mammal, to find if something similar was going on.

To do this, he and his colleagues analysed recordings of 469 rumbles made by groups of wild African elephant females and their young at Amboseli National Park and Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya over 36 years.

While there are many different contexts for rumbles, the research team focused on three:

  • Contact — where elephants try to make contact with other family members over a long distance or when out of sight
  • Greeting — when elephants approach each other within touching distance
  • Caregiving — when adult or adolescent females give comfort to or communicate with a young calf.

They used an artificial intelligence model to figure out which elephant was being addressed in each recorded call.

The next step was to play calls containing “names” to 17 wild elephants.

“I found that they reacted much more strongly to calls that were originally addressed to them than to calls from the same caller that were originally addressed to someone else,” Dr Pardo said.

“That indicates that they can tell just by hearing a call whether it was addressed to them or not.”

Behaviours explained

For some of the long-time elephant researchers involved with the study, the findings appear to confirm unexplained interactions they had witnessed before.

Joyce Poole — a conservationist, biologist and co-founder of not-for-profit Elephant Voices — said she had seen an elephant rumble out a contact call in the past, but noticed only one member of their group responded while others ignored them.

“Other times a different individual would answer, or perhaps none of the elephants that I was with answered,” she said.

“Since the caller listened after calling, I knew she was waiting for an answer. 

“It made me wonder whether the elephants were ‘rude’ and simply ignoring one another or whether she wasn’t calling the particular family members that I was with.”

Harvard Medical School behavioural ecologist Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, who was not involved in the study, thought the findings were the tip of the iceberg for understanding elephant vocal complexity.

“[The study] puts a lot in perspective and totally makes sense as far as elephants trying to communicate over a kilometre or so, and wanting to address a specific individual,” Dr O’Connell-Rodwell said.

Dr O’Connell-Rodwell said she had previously assumed elephants which reacted without delay to a call must have been an immediate family member. 

“Over time, I saw a more complex pattern emerging, but didn’t know exactly what individuals were cueing in on,” she said.

“This study very carefully assessed these situations and vocalisations and provided a quantitative answer to my long-standing question of why certain individuals responded more intently, other than the possibility of being more closely related.”

A large elephant on a grassy plain with two small elephants in tow
A female African elephant leading its calves in northern Kenya.(Supplied: George Wittemyer)

What’s in a name?

Although the new study’s researchers believe they have found evidence of elephant names, they can’t really tell how they are structured within the calls.

The human ear has a hard time detecting elements of elephant rumbles, which can be low on the decibel register.

Colorado State University wildlife conservation biologist George Wittemyer, a study co-author, said not understanding how elephant calls were encoded was a bit like not understanding an alphabet in human language.

Further research could also help understand if each elephant has a specific “name”, or if they have a few different names that are used by different callers.

Smiling headshot of Associate Professor Amanda Ridley from the University of Western Australia.
Amanda Ridley from the University of Western Australia.(ABC News: Jon Sambell)

With room for interpretation, University of Western Australia behavioural ecologist Amanda Ridley, who was not part of the study, said whether name-like calls were truly being used by the African elephants was unclear.

“What I do think is convincing in the study is that they are using specific vocal information to address specific individuals,” she said.

“This could be considered ‘names’ in some contexts.”

But Dr Ridley said she thought it was the most convincing case of non-human name-use, which wasn’t imitatedso far discovered in the animal kingdom.

“I think it highly possible other species do this as well, but the specific research to test this hasn’t been conducted on them yet,” she said.


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