Amazing discovery claims elephants have specific ‘names’ for each other: ScienceAlert

When elephants roam the African savannah, they may keep in touch with their relatives by calling out their individual “names.”

Researchers have found evidence that wild savanna elephants in Kenya describe each other with specific sounds, which they then use to communicate.

The research has not yet been peer-reviewed, but if the results can be verified and reproduced, it would make elephants the only known non-human animal that communicates by random names.

Bottlenose dolphins can also call out specific individuals by imitating their unique whistles, but scientists say this is a little different from what we humans do.

Our names are not usually based on imitating the unique sounds we make ourselves (like Pikachu), but are generally reflections of something more abstract and less concrete, buried in cultural practices and values.

This arbitrary nature of human naming now appears to apply to elephants as well.

In a lecture available on YouTube, behavioral ecologist Michael Pardo of Colorado State says his team’s findings are likely to “blur the line” between “what we think is unique to human language versus what is found in other animal communication systems.”

Elephants are known for their loud, trumpet-like sounds, but the vast majority of their communications cannot be heard by humans.

Instead, these large mammals produce mostly low-frequency rumbles, which can deliver messages to the feet of other elephants up to six kilometers away.

Elephants spend most of their day searching for food, and it is not uncommon for the herd to lose sight of each other in this endeavor. Calling each other by name will be a useful way to monitor the flock.

To explore this possibility, Pardo and his colleagues spent hours recording elephant gurgles in the wild, at two separate sites in Kenya.

In total, the team collected 625 clicks. Some were communication rumbles, like the one described above, while others were greeting rumbles, which occur when elephants see each other again after some time.

By analyzing the various features of this rumble, the researchers used a machine learning model to correctly predict the future at which the rumble was directed. The results indicate that some sounds were specific to individual receivers, and that those sounds did not depend on receiver imitation.

When the scientists played some of these sounds to 17 wild elephants, the individuals moved more quickly toward the sound of their “name” and vocalized faster in response as well.

Furthermore, these vocal designations appear to be relatively consistent across the herd.

In other words, different elephants often used the same type of rumble to communicate with the same recipient, and these vocal designations were not just reserved for broad societal roles, such as “mother.”

Of all the vocalizations recorded among elephants in Kenya, only about a fifth have been identified as single phonetic designations, but this is quite similar to how humans use names as well. Often times, names are not necessary in a situation, or they are just one element of a much larger point.

An elephant’s gurgle is supposed to encode a whole host of messages, from age to gender to emotional state, and in some scenarios, it can even take precedence over a name.

“Instead of including a completely independent call, elephant vocal markings may be embedded in a call that conveys several additional messages at the same time,” the researchers explain.

“The richness of the information content of elephant vocalizations makes it difficult to identify the specific acoustic parameters that encode a receiver ID.”

The results suggest that AI programs could really help us better understand the nuances of animal communication.

Perhaps one day researchers can use this knowledge to call elephants by their names.

Pre-printing is available at com.bioRxiv.

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