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Study suggests elephants call others by name

  • June 11, 2024
  • 2 min read
Study suggests elephants call others by name

A new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution has suggested that the wild African elephant address one another with name-like calls. This is an ability that is very rare among animals.

The team included researchers from Colorado State University, as well as Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices. They used machine learning to confirm that elephant calls contained a name-like component that identifies the animal that the ‘speaker’ wishes to call out. This behaviour was suspected from observations. When the researchers played the recordings back to the elephants, they responded affirmatively when they were addressed. Calls meant for other individuals were given less of a reaction.

“Dolphins and parrots call one another by ‘name’ by imitating the signature call of the addressee,” said lead author Michael Pardo, who conducted the study as an NSF postdoctoral researcher at CSU and Save the Elephants, a research and conservation organization based in Kenya. “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 learn to produce new sounds is not rare among animals but is required for identifying individual animals by name. Arbitrary communication, when a sound represents an idea without imitating it, expand communication abilities and is thought to be a higher level of cognitive ability.

“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 in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and chairman of the scientific board of Save the Elephants. Wittemyer added that the use of arbitrary vocal labels suggests that elephants could be capable of more abstract thought.

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