Elephants call each other by name, study suggests

12-06-2024 03:59 PM

Ammon News - Whether they’re solving puzzles, doing math or wielding tools, elephants have long been known for their cognitive abilities, and a study published this week suggests yet another aspect to their intelligence — they might even address one another by individual names.

Researchers analyzed 469 calls, or “rumbles,” from wild African elephants in Kenya that had a known caller and receiver. Using artificial intelligence because the rumbles are difficult for the human ear to discern, they found a “name-like” component that individual elephants recognized and later responded to when the call was replayed, according to the paper, published Monday in the peer-reviewed Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.

Elephants are “using this arbitrary symbol to refer to another individual,” said Mickey Pardo, the lead author on the study. “This tells us that they’re probably capable of understanding the abstract connection between the sound that they’re using and the individual that they have a relationship with.”

Some dolphins and parakeets are also known to address each other. But while those animals imitate the call of the individual they are addressing, the new study suggests elephant names are not imitative — that is, their names could be as arbitrary as “Emily” or “John” are to humans.

“Elephants approached more quickly, vocalized sooner and produced more vocalizations in response to playbacks of calls addressed to them than to another receiver, which indicates that they can recognize and respond to their own ‘name,’” write the study authors, who include researchers from Colorado State University and nonprofits such as Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices.

Researchers were not able to isolate individual elephant names and did not conclude whether different elephants used the same name for a given elephant. The next step, the authors write, is to determine how names are structured using a larger data set.

Still, experts in animal cognition say the practice of naming suggests advanced levels of thinking.

Caitlin O’Connell-Rodwell, a researcher at Harvard Medical School who has studied elephants in the wild for three decades, said the findings speak “to the elephant’s ability to picture another elephant in their mind and address them without necessarily seeing them” and “suggests the broader possibility of language use in elephants.”

The study, she said, represents “an elephantine step in our understanding of this highly intelligent species.”

Pardo, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, said the findings highlight the importance of elephants’ social bonds, adding that the “only way you can name other individuals” is “if you care enough about them and have enough of a need to interact with them that you bother to actually learn their names.”

Researchers have long recognized profound, humanlike cognitive skills and empathy in elephants, which are native to parts of Africa and Asia and can live up to 70 years in the wild. When a member of their community dies, elephants have been seen grieving; and after time apart, elephants appear to celebrate when they reunite with friends.

Pardo said that part of what fascinates him about elephants is their collaborative nature, pointing to a study in which two elephants work together to obtain a reward.

“That kind of highly cooperative society with strong social bonds between individuals is the root of a lot of interesting things about elephants,” he said, adding that it’s also a quality they share with humans.

And the findings could provide insight into humans, too, the authors write — a potential common thread in two species whose last common ancestor lived 90 to 100 million years ago, as the study points out.

The “use of learned arbitrary labels is part of what gives human language its uniquely broad range of expression,” they write, and the findings offer an opportunity to investigate what “may have led to the evolution of this rare ability in two divergent lineages.”

The Washington Post

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