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Elephants have nicknames for each other, scientists find in 'really exciting' discovery

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African elephants have names for each other that are spoken through rumbles, scientists have found, in a "really exciting" discovery.

It's the first time an animal has been discovered creating individual names for each other, instead of just mimicking the other's noises like parrots and dolphins do.

"It's really exciting," said Dr Joyce Poole, scientific director of ElephantVoices, who was part of the team that made the discovery that was published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal.

"Elephants live in a pretty complex society. They're quite a bit like ourselves [in that] families are not together all the time, they split up and come back together," she told Sky News.

By giving each other names, family members can call each other back to the herd or from across vast distances when they need to communicate.

'Sandy!' rumbles Shirley the elephant

An elephant nicknamed 'Shirley' calls 'Sandy' in an audio recording sent to Sky News by the researchers. Far from the trumpeting noise we often associate with elephants, the researchers say Sandy's name is a deep, reverberating rumble that lasts for around six seconds.

In another, 'Echo' calls for another elephant, nicknamed Ella. Ella's name is lower in tone than Sandy's and comes to a long, slow close, whereas Sandy's drops in tone and volume and then lingers.

The scientists used artificial intelligence to analyse recordings of elephants collected by Dr Poole and her colleagues since 1986 in Amboseli National Park and Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.

Analysing only the audio data, the computer model predicted which elephant was being addressed 28% of the time, likely due to the inclusion of its name. When fed meaningless data, the model only accurately labelled 8% of calls.

"Just like humans, elephants use names, but probably don't use names in the majority of utterances, so we wouldn't expect 100%," study author and Cornell University biologist Mickey Pardo told Sky's US partner network NBC News.

A lot of elephant communication is done through these deep, reverberating rumbles that can travel up to two kilometres across the Savannah, the study found.

Image: An African elephant leads her calf away from danger in northern Kenya. Pic: George Wittemyer/AP

The 'let's go' rumble

Dr Poole has studied elephants and the way they communicate for almost 50 years. Back in 2005, along with her colleagues, she found that elephants could imitate the sounds of other species and even machines.

"Elephants were imitating the sounds of trucks, for example," Dr Poole told Sky News.

"So we knew that elephants... were able to be creative. We wondered why that would be?"

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Nearly 25 years later, Dr Poole and the other biologists have now found that creativity allows the elephants to create nicknames for each other but that may not be all.

"They have a vocalisation that I refer to as a 'let's go' rumble," she said.

"An elephant will stand and point the direction that she wants to go, and call repeatedly.

"And sometimes the elephants then get involved in a discussion. They call back and forth and I have often wondered, are they talking about, 'Well, I don't want to go to the swamp'.

"I would not be surprised if we found they have place names for the places they go regularly."

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