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EleFact Friday: What’s In a Name?

We know that elephants have multiple ways of communicating, from loud trumpets to vibrations in their feet. But, as part of this way of “talking”, have elephants given each other names? On this EleFact Friday we will look at a study that asks if elephants address each other using distinctive rumbles that could be some form of name, title, or nickname. 

Based on personal experience, we know that trumpets can mean many things, depending on the situation. So, researchers decided to look for details about what’s going on with their low-frequency rumbles. Rumbles have lots of variations in their acoustic structure and elephants rumble in many contexts – many of which we’ve seen: greetings, comforting one another, or communicating over long distances. Researchers recorded over 400 rumbling calls and for every call they were able to determine which elephant was vocalizing and which elephant was being addressed, based on context. 

The research team used machine learning to see if some sort of identifying information might be embedded into the rumbles they’d recorded. It was important to find a situation where an elephant was alone, or at least not with the elephant whose recording was being played. The elephant would be played a recorded rumble that was believed to be addressed to her, or a rumble intended for someone else. The elephants generally seemed to know when a message was for them, which suggests that there might be some sort of name included.

Researcher Karl Berg said, “I have no doubt that they’re addressing them with these, you know, unique labels. Now, are they nicknames? Are they names? Where do they come from?” But, so far, the researchers aren’t able to determine exactly what acoustic features in those low-frequency rumbles might equate to a name. That answer might also give us an idea as to whether elephants talk about each other in the third person. Do they talk about others when they’re not around? And do they use “names” for the same reasons that humans, dolphins, and parrots (all of whom also use name-like sounds) do? We look forward to reading more information as researchers delve deeper into this line of study. 

Photo of Maia on a walk through the habitat

Comments(4)

  1. REPLY
    Sue says

    Gorgeous picture of Maia with her pink coloring! Thank you for the post on this recent study. These beauties continue to surprise and inform!!! ❤️🐘❤️

  2. REPLY
    Pamela Hall says

    Gosh!!! These beasties become more and more amazing the more we learn about them. In my opinion it proves we are the more ignorant species.

  3. REPLY
    Terry says

    Very interesting.

  4. REPLY
    Barb says

    Very, very intriguing to imagine “names”!!

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