Elephants Have Names for Each Other: A Groundbreaking Discovery

Discover the groundbreaking study revealing that African elephants call each other by individual names. This study challenges our understanding of animal communication and highlights the complexity of elephant social structures.

Elephants Have Names for Each Other: A Groundbreaking Discovery
Photo by Mylon Ollila / Unsplash

In a fascinating revelation, new research has uncovered that African elephants call each other by individual names, a behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans, dolphins, and certain birds.

This discovery, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, challenges our understanding of animal communication and underscores the complexity of elephant social structures.

The Discovery

Biologists using machine learning analyzed a vast library of elephant vocalizations recorded at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. They found that the elephants' low rumbles, which can travel long distances across the savanna, often included unique identifiers — essentially names.

This is a groundbreaking finding, as it is extremely rare for wild animals to call each other by unique names. Humans, of course, use names, and domesticated dogs respond to their given names.

Dolphins create signature whistles that function as names, and parrots are also known to use names. Like these species, elephants can learn and produce new sounds throughout their lives, a talent that appears to underpin this naming behaviour.

The Science Behind the Study

Dr. Richard Lieu, an ecologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville who was not involved in the study, highlights the significance of this ability in animals with complex social structures. "If you’re looking after a large family, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘Hey, Virginia, get over here!’” he explains. Elephants, known for their intricate social networks, have evolved this naming mechanism to maintain cohesion and communication within their groups.

The study utilized a computer model to analyze audio data and predict which elephant was being addressed based on vocal cues. The model accurately identified the named elephant 28% of the time, compared to just 8% with meaningless data. This indicates that elephants use names, although not in every vocalization, similar to humans who use names selectively.

Observational Evidence

Researchers observed the elephants in the wild, following them in jeeps to see who called out and who responded. They noted instances such as mothers calling their calves or matriarchs summoning stragglers back to the group.

The elephants' responses to playback recordings further supported the findings. When elephants heard their names, they responded with increased energy, flapping their ears and lifting their trunks while often ignoring calls not addressed.

Co-author and Colorado State University ecologist George Wittemyer, who also advises Save the Elephants, elaborates on the social nature of elephants: “Elephants are incredibly social, always talking and touching each other — this naming is probably one of the things that underpin their ability to communicate to individuals.”

Implications and Future Research

This discovery opens new avenues for understanding elephant communication and social behaviour. By uncovering that elephants use names, scientists have cracked open a window into the elephant mind, revealing a level of social complexity previously unappreciated in these majestic creatures.

However, much remains to be explored. Researchers are still uncertain about the exact nature of the phase transition that could give rise to these topological defects. Future studies must delve deeper into the formation and evolution of these vocal patterns and how they facilitate group dynamics in elephant populations.


The finding that elephants use individual names challenges long-held beliefs and adds a profound layer to our understanding of animal communication. It not only highlights elephants' intelligence and social sophistication but also calls for a reevaluation of how we perceive and interact with them.

As we continue to uncover the mysteries of elephant communication, we can anticipate even greater insights into the complex lives of these incredible animals.