Researchers Use Ai: Elephants Apparently Call Each Other By Name

11 Jun 2024

African elephants probably give each other names and react when they are called. This is the conclusion reached by an international team of researchers in Kenya. They analysed the calls of elephants using an artificial intelligence algorithm. The results of their study, which was published yesterday, were reported by media around the world.

elephant elephant cow elephant calf Etosha National Park Namibia
African savanna elephant cow with calf in the Etosha National Park in Namibia.  Photo: Sven-Eric Stender

The research was based on recordings from 1986 to 2022 of the low-pitched growls of wild female African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana) and their offspring in national parks in southern and northern Kenya.

The research team analysed the recordings of 469 calls with the help of artificial intelligence. In 27.5% of cases, the AI model correctly recognised which elephant was being addressed. This success rate was much higher than in control tests with randomly selected recordings. From this, the researchers concluded that calls can contain information that is only directed at a specific elephant.

In a next step, the research team played recordings of these calls to 17 elephants. When comparing their reactions, they noticed differences. When an elephant heard 'its name', it became louder and moved faster towards the 'speaker' than when it heard calls directed at other elephants.

Study on elephant calls is considered a sensation

In their study, the researchers admit that more evidence is needed before their hypothesis of elephants naming each other can be considered confirmed. Nevertheless, the study, which was published yesterday in the scientific journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, is considered a sensation.

elephants Etosha National Park Namibia
Elephants in Etosha National Park. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

According to the research team, the African elephant would be the first animal to give each other names like humans. A bottlenose dolphin species (Tursiops truncatus) and a parakeet species (Eupsittula canicularis) are known to imitate the typical calls of those they wish to address. But names go beyond this because they are arbitrary. In other words, they contain nothing intrinsic to the named creature or object.

African savanna elephants can also be experienced in Namibia. They are mainly found in the Etosha National Park  and in the Zambezi region. The so-called 'desert elephant' in Damaraland and Kaokoland in north-west Namibia is also not a separate species or subspecies. Rather, they are African savanna elephants that have adapted to their arid environment.

Sven-Eric Stender

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