Elephants are more like humans than we realized

KENYA – 2003/01/01: Kenya, Masai Mara, Grassland, Elephant Babies (2 Months And 2 Years Old). (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Wild African elephants call each other by their names, according to a study published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution — making them the only nonhuman animals known to use language like this.

From infancy onward, we learn sounds that represent people, objects, feelings, and concepts. But if you repeat a word — even your own name — too many times, it starts to sound meaningless. Most words, after all, are no more than arbitrary collections of sound.

Our ability to create and share vocal labels, like names, is part of what makes us human. Until now, this kind of arbitrary vocal labeling was thought to be unique to humans. 

A handful of animal species, including bottlenose dolphins and parrots, can also address each other using vocal calls. These calls, or catchphrases, are used to shout out the caller’s own identity, not that of another animal. To get a given individual’s attention, a dolphin can imitate another dolphin’s signature call — it works, but it’s not what we do.

If your friend constantly says, “What’s up, dude?” and you’re both dolphins, you might refer to them in the third person as “Whatsup Dude.” Since you’re not dolphins, you’d probably call them something like “Kyle” instead. Scientists think that this cognitive leap takes more effort than imitation alone, making it an extremely rare phenomenon in the animal kingdom.

If elephants are intelligent enough to learn each other’s names, they may also have deep social bonds, complex thoughts, and a desire to connect with others — just like us. Findings like this pile onto mountains of evidence suggesting that we should rethink our current relationships with animals like elephants.

“I honestly think we just scratched the surface of it,” said behavioral ecologist Mickey Pardo, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University and lead author of this study, which was done in collaboration with seven other researchers.

Elephants call one another by their names

Elephants live in close-knit social groups, centered around matriarchal herds of females and their calves. They form strong bonds with social networks linking up to 50 or more elephants. “Their social relationships are such an incredibly important part of their ecology,” said Pardo.

Like humans, elephants aren’t always physically close to their best friends and family. They don’t need phones to keep in touch from afar — thanks to their massive vocal tracts, elephants can produce loud, low-frequency rumbles that travel through the ground as seismic waves reaching elephants up to 6 kilometers away (roughly 3.75 miles). At that distance, well out of sight, a caller needs to indicate who they’re directing their message to.

Pardo wondered whether elephants’ intricate social relationships, and the need to identify one another from a distance, pushed elephants to learn to call one another by their names.

To find out, Pardo recorded elephant vocalizations from groups of wild adult females and their calves across two field sites in Kenya, taking note of which elephant was calling and who they were calling to. Elephants make lots of sounds in addition to their iconic trumpeting. Here, researchers focused on the rich, low-frequency rumbles elephants use to call out to each other from a distance, to greet each other up close, and to comfort their children.

The team trained a machine-learning algorithm to match rumble calls to the elephant they were directed toward (the “receiver”). When given an unlabeled rumble, the algorithm was able to guess the receiving elephant’s identity with 27.5 percent accuracy — significantly better than chance. That number might look relatively low, but Pardo said that they wouldn’t expect the model to be perfectly accurate. They probably aren’t saying each other’s names every time they rumble at each other.

Greeting rumbles — the elephant equivalent of saying “hi” — were the worst at predicting the receiver’s identity, which makes sense. When I meet up with a friend at a bar, I rarely say, “Hello, insert-name-here!” Something like “Hey, good to see you!” usually does the trick, and elephants may do the same. It’s possible that the machine-learning tools used in this study simply couldn’t capture all the rumbles’ nuances. They relied on a supervised learning algorithm, which assigned recordings to predefined name labels, rather than discovering patterns on its own. In the future, other techniques like deep learning could uncover more, but would require a lot more training data. 

Elephants don’t have signature calls like dolphins and parrots, but each elephant’s voice has a unique intonation and character, much like ours do. Pardo’s team used their classification algorithm to see whether elephants were truly using a distinct sound to call for their friends, beyond simply copying the receiver. Indeed, they found that vocal labeling in elephants probably doesn’t rely on imitation — but without an exhaustive understanding of elephant language, it’s hard to know for sure.

Calls to the same receiver were also more similar to each other than calls to different receivers, lending more support to the idea that an elephant’s name represents its identity to the whole group. However, the similarity across callers wasn’t very strong, suggesting that different elephants might refer to a given individual by different names. That said, wild elephants did respond to recordings of calls that were initially addressed to them, which means those calls must carry some form of uniquely identifying information.

While humans usually use the same label for a given person — my name is Celia, and everyone calls me Celia — this isn’t always the case. My partner’s given name is Andrew, but most people who have met him within the last five years call him Roan. To some extent, that vocal label depends on the social context and the depth and nature of their relationship. Elephants may be similar. 

Elephant rumbles are information-dense: One 30-second recording could contain an elephant’s name, but it also might contain a lot more. Given the relatively limited amount of data Pardo’s team had access to, the machine-learning techniques could only assign a recording to the elephant name it was most similar to. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine receiving a noisy voice memo in a completely unfamiliar language, and trying to pick out a specific word from that collection of sounds — it’s tricky. Daniela Hedwig, director of the Elephant Listening Project in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, thinks that the next step will be to figure out exactly how individual pieces of information are encoded in the acoustics of these recordings. 

“If we can figure out how the elephants are encoding names in the calls,” Pardo said, “it would open up so many other avenues of inquiry.”

Could this be used as evidence for elephant personhood?

In 2022, New York state’s highest court ruled that an elephant was not a legal person. The Nonhuman Rights Project had filed habeas corpus litigation on behalf of Happy, an elephant living in isolation at the Bronx Zoo, arguing for her right to be freed from illegal detainment.

They lost. Monica Miller, Happy’s attorney at the Nonhuman Rights Project, was not surprised. Humans have certain basic rights simply because they’re humans, and in many ways, animals are viewed as property under the law. Miller suspects this deeply ingrained feeling of human exceptionalism would stop a judge from granting an elephant the right to personal autonomy. “Even if an elephant could write a law school essay, they would say ‘No,’ because they’re an elephant.”

Demonstrating that an animal engages in complex forms of communication isn’t necessarily enough to make people care about them. Ants use a highly sophisticated chemical language to coordinate some of the most impressive collective actions in the animal kingdom, but we still kill about a gazillion (rough estimate) ants per day. Ants don’t get lawyers.

They do get signatures from 287 scientists, philosophers, and ethicists, including Pardo. In April, The New York Declaration on Animal Consciousness launched at a conference at New York University, stating that there is “strong scientific support for attributions of conscious experience to other mammals and to birds,” and “at least a realistic possibility of conscious experience” in all vertebrates and most invertebrates. The declaration aims, in part, to encourage people to consider the implications of studies like Pardo’s on animal welfare policy.

To collect recordings of elephant calls in the wild, Pardo spent time in the field at the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. The biggest cause of elephant mortality in the area, he said, was human-elephant conflict. “The conflict between humans and animals is at its worst. And it gets worse every year,” Mike Lesil, a ranger at Samburu National Reserve told Sierra. “We used to chase Somali poachers, organized crime groups, and local thieves hired by the ivory traders. Now most of the elephants are murdered by the local herders fighting the wildlife for pastures and water.”

“The more we learn about the elephant’s behavior and needs, the better informed conflict mitigation strategies can be, taking into account the perspective of both humans and elephants,” Joshua Plotnik, a professor studying the evolution of cognition across species at Emory University, wrote in an email.

In theory, findings like Pardo’s could open the door to literal human-elephant communication. More realistically, he hopes it will inspire people to invest in conservation efforts and rethink their relationships with elephants — both in their native habitat, and in captivity. “I feel like we really need a major revolution in how we think about other animals,” he told me. Given the complexity of their social lives in the wild, Pardo no longer believes that it’s ethical to keep elephants in captivity at all.

Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) is currently taking a similar approach to animal cognition research, decoding sperm whale vocalizations to promote conservation efforts. It all hinges on the hope that if scientists can prove that an animal does something we once thought was uniquely human, we’ll be more motivated to care.

As humans, we tend to empathize with animals that feel similar to us. “People often only appreciate what they understand,” Pardo said, “and they often only understand what’s close to them.”

“Evidence that they’re able to name each other, to have that concept of self and then create a symbol for the self, is a level of autonomy that we would recognize in the court as being worthy of protection,” Miller said. “Rights trickle down from this understanding.”

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