Research on acoustic communication has often focused on signalling between territorial individuals or static neighbouring groups. Under these circumstances, receivers have the opportunity to learn to recognize the signals only of the limited number of conspecifics with which they are in auditory contact. In some mammals, however, social units move freely with respect to one another and range widely, providing individuals with opportunities to learn to recognize the signals of a wide range of conspecifics in addition to those of their immediate neighbours. We conducted playback experiments on African elephants, Loxodonta africana, in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, to determine the extent to which adult female elephants, which have a highly fluid social system, can recognize others in the population through infrasonic contact calls. Female elephants could distinguish the calls of female family and bond group members from those of females outside of these categories; moreover, they could also discriminate between the calls of family units further removed than bond group members, on the basis of how frequently they encountered them. We estimated that subjects would have to be familiar with the contact calls of a mean of 14 families in the population (containing around 100 adult females in total), in order to perform these discriminations. Female elephants thus appear to have unusually extensive networks of vocal recognition, which may prove to be typical of long-lived species that have both fluid social systems and the means for long-distance vocal communication. Copyright 2000 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.