June 23, 2024

Elephants call to each other by individual names they invent for their fellow pachyderms, according to a new study.

While dolphins and parrots have been observed to address each other by mimicking the sounds of others of their species, elephants are the first non-human animals known to use names that do not involve mimicry, the researchers suggested.

For the new study published on Monday, a team of international researchers used an artificial intelligence algorithm to analyze the calls of two wild herds of African savannah elephants in Kenya.

The research “shows not only that elephants use specific vocalizations for each individual, but that they recognize and respond to a call addressed to them, while ignoring those addressed to others,” said lead study author Michael Pardo, said.

“This suggests that elephants can determine whether a call was intended for them just by hearing the call, even when it is outside of its original context,” the behavioral ecologist at Colorado State University said in a statement.

The researchers sifted through elephant “rumbles” recorded at Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park between 1986 and 2022.

Using a machine learning algorithm, they identified 469 different calls, which included 101 elephants issuing a call and 117 receiving one.

Elephants make a wide range of sounds, from loud trumpeting to rumbling so low they cannot be heard by the human ear.

Names were not always used in the elephant calls. But when names were called, it was often over a long distance, and when adults addressed young elephants.

Adults were also more likely to use names than calves, suggesting that this particular talent can take years to acquire.

The most common call was “a harmonically rich, low-frequency sound”, according to the study in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

When the researchers played a recording for an elephant of their friend or family member calling out their name, the animal responded positively and “energetically,” the researchers said.

But the same elephant was much less enthusiastic when playing the names of others.

Unlike those mischievous parrots and dolphins, the elephants did not simply imitate the call of the intended recipient.

This suggests that elephants and humans are the only two animals known to invent “arbitrary” names for each other, rather than simply copying the sound of the receiver.

“The evidence provided here that elephants use non-imitative sounds to name others indicates that they have the capacity for abstract thought,” said senior study author George Wittemyer.

The researchers called for more research into the evolutionary origins of this naming talent, as the ancestors of elephants diverged from primates and whales about 90 million years ago.

Despite our differences, humans and elephants share many similarities such as “extended family units with rich social lives, underpinned by highly developed brains,” said Save the Elephants CEO Frank Pope.

“That elephants use names for each other is probably just the beginning of the revelations to come.”

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