Elephant Talk

Elephant Talk

Anyone watching a herd of elephants gathered at a waterhole or moving through the bush will be aware that these giant, stately animals communicate with each other all the time.

Sometimes they make physical contact, touching each other with their trunks, at other times they keep in contact by smell or sight, and often they communicate through the generation of low frequency “rumbles” that can be heard by other elephants kilometers away.

Now new research suggests that elephants could be even smarter than we think, and that the animals may call each other by “name,” using unique “rumble” calls directed at individual animals.

“They have this ability to individually call specific members of their family with a unique call,” Dr Michael Pardo, of Cornell University in the U.S. says.

Researchers, working in the Amboseli National Park, Buffalo Springs National Park and the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya used machine-learning algorithms to identify 470 distinct calls from 101 animals made to 117 “responders” and then played the calls to selected animals using loudspeakers.

When specific calls were played to a “friend” or family member the animals responded more “energetically” than to calls addressed to other animals.

The research “…not only shows that the elephants use specific vocalisation for each individual, but they recognise and react to a call addressed to them while ignoring a call addressed to other,” Dr Prado said.

Some elephants “vocalised a response” far more quickly when a recording was aimed at them specifically.

Elephants produce low frequency “rumbles”, some of which are at frequencies humans are unable to hear, by forcing air from the lungs over their vocal cords creating the “rumble”. The animals emit some of these rumbles through their mouths and trunks for varying durations and each has a different purpose. Some are intended for long range communication and others might be used by a mother to interact with her calf.

The researchers note that elephants form lifelong social bonds with many animals and the using of “names” may strengthen these relationships.

In contact calls, where the caller and receiver are separated, vocal labels probably allow elephants to attract the attention of a specific distant receiver,” the researchers state in their paper “African savannah elephants call one another by ‘name’ published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. “In close-distance calls such as greeting and caregiving rumbles, vocal labels may help strengthen social bonds, similar to the way in which humans experience a positive affective response and increased willingness to cooperate when someone remembers their name.

Researchers say that they are still not sure how names are “encoded” into calls and that there may be much more information contained in call than is presently understood.

Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.