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Elephants use specific names to address each other

Wild African elephants use name-like calls to address each other, a rare behavior among nonhuman animals. This remarkable behavior was observed by scientists from Colorado State University (CSU), in collaboration with Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices

The researchers used machine learning to analyze elephant calls, revealing that elephants respond affirmatively to calls specifically directed at them. 

Elephants use names just like humans

“Dolphins and parrots call one another by ‘name’ by imitating the signature call of the addressee,” said lead author Michael Pardo, a  postdoctoral researcher at CSU and Save the Elephants. 

“By contrast, our data suggest that elephants do not rely on imitation of the receiver’s calls to address one another, which is more similar to the way in which human names work.”

The ability to produce new sounds, necessary for identifying individuals by name, is uncommon among animals. Arbitrary communication, where a sound represents an idea without imitating it, greatly expands communication capability and is considered a next-level cognitive skill. 

“If all we could do was make noises that sounded like what we were talking about, it would vastly limit our ability to communicate,” said co-author George Wittemyer, a professor at CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources.

Complex social interactions 

Elephant evolution diverged from human evolution tens of millions of years ago, yet both species have developed complex social networks and communication systems. 

Researchers propose that the development of arbitrary vocal labeling in both species may have been driven by similar social pressures. “It’s probably a case where we have similar pressures, largely from complex social interactions,” Wittemyer said.

Elephants communicate using a broad range of vocalizations that convey identity, age, sex, emotional state, and behavioral context. Their calls, which span a wide frequency spectrum including infrasonic sounds, can coordinate group movements over long distances. 

Subtle calls reveal elephant names

The study’s novel signal processing technique, developed by Kurt Fristrup at CSU, detected subtle differences in call structure, revealing that elephants use arbitrary sonic labels, suggesting the potential existence of other labels or descriptors in their calls.

When researchers played back recorded calls, elephants responded energetically to calls directed at them, demonstrating recognition of their names

Elephants respond to their names 

Pardo, now at Cornell University, noted that elephants did not react to calls meant for others, indicating selective responsiveness to their specific calls. 

The experts also observed that elephants are more likely to address each other by name over long distances or when adults are communicating with calves.

During four years of research, including 14 months of intensive fieldwork in Kenya, researchers recorded 470 distinct calls from 101 unique callers corresponding with 117 unique receivers in Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. This extensive data collection allowed for a detailed analysis of elephant communication patterns.

Strengthening conservation efforts 

The researchers believe that understanding elephant communication and cognition can strengthen conservation efforts. Elephants are classified as endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, and effective communication could aid in their protection. “I’d like to be able to warn them, ‘Do not come here. You’re going to be killed if you come here,” Wittemyer said.

Further research is needed to isolate the names within the calls and explore whether elephants name other things they interact with, such as food, water, and places. Despite the challenges in collecting data, the study provides new insights into elephant behavior and the importance of social reinforcement in their communication.

More about elephant communication 

Elephants communicate using a rich array of vocalizations, gestures, and chemical signals. They produce a range of sounds, from low-frequency rumbles that can travel over long distances to higher-pitched trumpets and roars. 

Social bonds

These low-frequency rumbles, often below the range of human hearing, play a crucial role in maintaining social bonds and coordinating movements, especially within their herds.

Body language 

In addition to vocal sounds, elephants use body language to convey information and emotions. They flap their ears, raise their trunks, and make specific postures to signal aggression, submission, or excitement. 

Physical touch 

Physical touch is also important; elephants often greet each other by entwining trunks, and they use trunk touches to reassure and comfort one another.

Chemical communication 

Chemical communication is another vital aspect of elephant interaction. Elephants have highly developed olfactory senses and use scent to convey information about reproductive status, individual identity, and emotional states. 

They can detect pheromones in urine, dung, and secretions from glands located near their eyes and feet, which help them communicate over long distances.

The study is published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.


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