Researchers discover that elephants call themselves by their own names just like humans

Research carried out in Kenya managed to determine that African elephants identify themselves with their own names just as humans do. This pattern is novel in the animal world, although others have special ways of communicating.

African elephants
African elephants use vocal tags to identify each other, similar to what humans do.

In the animal kingdom, some of its members call their peers in specific ways. For example, bottlenose dolphins can call to some individuals by imitating their unique signature whistles. Specialists indicate that this is different from what humans do. Our names are not based on imitations of unique noises we make ourselves, but rather represent something more abstract and less tangible, rooted in cultural practices and values.

African elephants call and question each other through specific sounds that are different for each individual.

It is there that we are related to elephants, because that type of pair identification rule is similar to ours. African elephants call and question each other through specific sounds for each individual. This was demonstrated by a study in which the University of Colorado and the NGOs Save the Elephants, Elephant Voices and the Amboseli Trust for Elephants research project participated.

The researchers recall in their study that one of the characteristics of spoken human language is the use of "vocal labels". This is a learned sound that refers to a specific object or a specific individual. Many species functionally produce calls that refer to food and predators, but the production of these calls is often innate.

Vocal labels

Behavioral ecologist Michael Pardo of Colorado State University, who participated in the research, says his team's findings likely “blur the line” between “what we think is unique to human language and what is found in other animal communication systems,” as mentioned by Mystery Planet.

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Vocal labels, when learned, generate more flexible communication and allow the creation of new labels for other referents. These types of labels are fundamental to the human ability to articulate symbolic thought, something that appears to occur in elephants. The study opens the door to broader research in the animal kingdom.

In any case, the researchers point out that there are few known examples of the use of vocal labels in other animal species, especially to refer to personal names. Names must involve vocal learning, since an individual cannot be born knowing the names of all of their future social acquaintances. This is part of learning over the years.

The sounds of elephants that humans do not hear

We know elephants for their loud, trumpet-like vocalisations, but the vast majority of their communication cannot be perceived by human ears. Instead, these large mammals primarily emit low-frequency rumbles, which can transmit messages to the ears of other elephants up to six kilometres away.

African elephants move in herds, and use their own name to locate themselves when they disperse.

It must be understood that elephants spend a large majority of the day searching for food, and it is not uncommon for the herd to lose sight of its members in that task. Calling each other names would be a useful way to keep in touch with the pack. To explore this possibility, Pardo and his colleagues spent hours recording elephant rumbles in the wild, in two different locations in Kenya.

African elephants are an exception as they are among the few mammals capable of imitating novel sounds, although the function of this vocal learning ability is unknown. Much remains to be investigated, although these indications suggest that at least in the animal kingdom some things that humans do do not seem to be unique.