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Do elephants have names for each other?

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2024-06-10 17:30:03

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What’s in a name? The elephant humans have named ‘Desert Rose’ might respond more readily if her specific elephant rumble was used. Credit: George Wittemyer

Elephants seem to use personalized calls to address members of their group, providing a rare example of naming in animals other than humans.

“There’s a lot more sophistication in animal lives than we are typically aware,” says Michael Pardo, a behavioural ecologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “Elephants’ communication may be even more complex than we previously realized.”

Other than humans, few animals give each other names. Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and orange-fronted parakeets (Eupsittula canicularis) are known to identify each other by mimicking the signature calls of those they are addressing. By contrast, humans use names that have no inherent association with the people, or objects, they’re referring to. Pardo had a hunch that elephants might also have a name for each other, because of their extensive vocal communication and rich social relationships.

To find out, Pardo and his colleagues recorded, between 1986 and 2022, the deep rumbles of wild female African savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and their offspring in Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya, and in the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in the country’s north. The findings were published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution1.

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