African elephants call out and respond to each other using unique names, study finds

An elephant's recognisable trumpet may have deeper meaning than we first thought, ITV News Correspondent Ellie Pitt reports

Wild African elephants call out to each other and respond to their own unique names, according to new research.

The elephants learn, use and recognise the individual calls to address others in their heard, rather than simply imitating each other.

The names are part of the elephants' low rumbles which can be heard over long distances across the savanna.

Researchers tested their results by playing recordings to individual elephants, who responded more energetically, ears flapping and trunk lifted, when they heard their "name".

Co-author and Colorado State University ecologist Professor George Wittemyer said that elephants are incredibly social, and regularly talk to and touch one another.

"This naming is probably one of the things that underpins their ability to communicate to individuals," he said.

“We just cracked open the door a bit to the elephant mind.”

The professor, who also works with Save the Elephants, hopes the finding could one day lead to humans learning how to communicate basic ideas to elephants.

"The hope from me is that there are some rudimentary concepts we can figure out with them.

"Depending on how they use language, it seems like them communicating with each other where safety is and where risks are is highly probable.

"In that case, that would be a huge help for us - being able to tell elephants this is a really high-risk area, or this is a safe place for you."

An African elephant family comforts a calf in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Credit: AP

Scientists believe animals with complex social structures and family groups may be more likely to use individual names.

The behaviour is very rare in the animal kingdom. Dolphins are known to address one another by imitating the signature whistle of another dolphin and parrots use a similar technique.

The study involved using machine learning to tune in to the sound of elephant vocalisations recorded at at Kenya's Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park.

Professor Wittemyer and his team have been studying the same group in northern Kenya for over 25 years.

They followed the elephants in Jeeps to find out who called out and who appeared to respond — for example, if a mother called to a calf, or a matriarch called to a straggler who later rejoined the family group.

He said: "We've had several incidents where we've been with these elephants and the matriarch of the family will give a call, and everyone in the family will answer.

"And then several seconds later, she'll give seemingly a very similar call and nobody in the family would answer except one individual."

Elephant rumbles include sounds that are below the range of human hearing, leaving scientists still unsure about which part of the vocalisation is the name.

Professor Wittemyer said the new findings could open the door to further decoding their complex system of communication.

"How deep does it go? How complex is this communication? We really have no idea.

"The sky's the limit."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…