The use of proper names to refer to other individuals is a universal feature of human language. However, few similar examples are found in other species. While dolphins and parrots address others by imitating their calls, human names do not imitate the sounds that people typically make.

Researchers in Animal Behavior studied the vocal communications of wild African elephants to analyze whether they also use proper names to address each other. They recorded hundreds of “rumbles” or calls that elephants emit to maintain long-distance contact or greet each other when they reunite.

To study this, scientists analyzed the acoustic features of each call and, with the help of artificial intelligence, could accurately predict which elephant each one was directed to, much better than chance. This demonstrates that elephants have specific calls for each individual.

Moreover, when they played back some calls to wild elephants, the elephants responded differently depending on whether the call was originally directed to them or to another companion. This shows that elephants can recognize from a call whether it is addressed to them or not.

What is most surprising is that, unlike dolphins and parrots that mimic the recipient’s vocalizations, elephant calls do not seem to imitate the sounds emitted by the receiver. This indicates that elephants use arbitrary “names” to address others, just like humans.

This finding is very relevant for understanding the evolution of language. Until now, the use of non-imitative learned vocal signals, such as human names, was only known in our species. The discovery that elephants also possess this ability raises questions about the complexity of their social cognition.

The way elephants live in flexible herds, often visually separated, makes it useful to communicate at a distance. Names could help coordinate and maintain social bonds. Like humans, elephants may find it comforting to be individually recognized by their names.

This discovery provides new insights into the evolution of language and suggests independent evolutionary convergences in two very distant species that include the use of learned vocal signals as proper names.


Sources

Michael A. Pardo, Kurt Fristrup, David S. Lolchuragi, et al., African elephants address one another with individually specific calls. BioRxiv, doi.org/10.1101/2023.08.25.554872


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