Study indicates African elephants employ individual calling signals akin to human names

Untamed African elephants may communicate with each other using distinctive calls that mirror humans’ use of personal names, recent research indicates.

While it’s common knowledge that dolphins can address their kin by mimicking a characteristic whistle, and similar behavior has been observed in parrots, it appears that African elephants in Kenya may take personal identification a step further.

These large mammals have demonstrated the ability to learn, discriminate, and employ unique vocal signals akin to names to reach out to their peers, and they manage this without resorting to mimicry, as mentioned in the report published Monday in the periodical Nature Ecology and Evolution.

The predominant vocalization amongst elephants is known as a rumble, which is divided into three distinct varieties. Contact rumbles function as a means to summon another elephant that may be distant or concealed from view. When another elephant is close enough to make physical contact, greeting rumbles are employed. Caregiver rumbles are used predominantly by young or adult female elephants towards a calf in their custodianship, as the research explains.

For the purpose of this study, the probe centered around these varieties of rumbles, employing a machine learning framework to scrutinize audio clips of 469 calls made by primal herds of females and young in Amboseli National Park and Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves from the years 1986 through 2022. Notably, each elephant could be distinctly identified via the contours of their ears, thanks to consistent monitoring that spanned decades.

The hypothesis was that “should the vocalizations contain elements akin to a moniker, then one ought to deduce the intended recipient of the call merely from the call’s sonorous attributes,” expressed main research author Mickey Pardo, a behavioral ecologist and postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University in New York.

Variations in the structure of the vocalizations were contingent on the address of the call.

The computational model accurately pinpointed the call’s intended recipient in 27.5% of instances examined, “which might not seem exceedingly high, however, it is substantially greater than the model’s predictions had it been supplied with nonsensical data,” as Pardo recounted during an interview with CNN.

“This implies the presence of call elements enabling the model to discern the destined party of the communication,” he elaborated.

An elephant family comforts a calf while napping under a tree in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. - George WittemyerAn elephant family comforts a calf while napping under a tree in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. - George Wittemyer

An elephant family comforts a calf while napping under a tree in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. – George Wittemyer

The research team also deduced that the elephants likely weren’t simply replicating the voice of the individual they sought to reach. Through comparing sets of vocalizations between the one initiating contact and the intended recipient, as well as comparing the recipient’s own calls with others, it was revealed that the majority of communications from the contact initiator did not audibly resemble the recipient’s cries more than when directed towards different elephants.

Subsequent to broadcasting playbacks to a cohort of 17 elephants, the team observed whether the animals acknowledged and reciprocated to those that were initially intended for them.

As a result, it was manifested that the elephants exhibited a markedly intense reaction to a call that was initially meant specifically for them as opposed to one originating from the same individual but aimed at another. “This therefore implied that the elephants were capable of recognizing if a communication was intended for them exclusively based upon the sound of that call,” stated Pardo.

He stressed that the study “offers insights into the intellectual aptitudes of elephants; for if these creatures are interacting in such a manner, they are essentially crafting appellations for each other. This insinuates a degree of abstract reasoning — they must learn an arbitrary sound and link it to another entity, effectively addressing each other by a designated title.”

The progression of linguistic abilities

Elephants forge enduring, complex social relationships with numerous associates and are oftentimes geographically parted from their closely knitted social counterparts, as described in the report.

Therefore, certain vocal signals might serve to draw the focus of an individual who is some distance apart, whereas proximity calls may serve to fortify intimate ties, much like when humans exhibit more amiable and concerted interactions when another person acknowledges their name, the researchers proposed.

As several families cross the Ewaso Ngiro River together, a female from the Native Americans family responds to her calf’s distress call. - George WittemyerAs several families cross the Ewaso Ngiro River together, a female from the Native Americans family responds to her calf’s distress call. - George Wittemyer

When several families traverse the Ewaso Ngiro River in unison, a matriarch of the Native Americans lineage reacts to her offspring’s signal of distress. – George Wittemyer

Proximity of elephants to each other resulted in a higher probability of accurate identification of caregiving vocalizations by the AI model over greeting sounds. The scientists theorized that matriarchs might utter appellatives more often when interacting with their young to either soothe them or to assist in the learning of their specific appellatives.

The machine’s algorithm also more accurately distinguished utterances made by mature females over those produced by young elephants, implying that mature females might incorporate appellatives into their vocalizations more frequently since such behavior matures over years, as per the findings of the research.

Pardo noted that the majority of mammals lack the capability to acquire new vocalizations — a skill required to designate something with an appellative.

Further, he mentioned that since humans, dolphins, and elephants communicate with their species peers using the equivalent of names, “the necessity to designate other beings individually may have influenced the evolution of linguistics.”

“Perhaps this challenge of maintaining numerous intricate associations — and the need to identify others by their uniqueness — is what propelled creatures, our forefathers included, to evolve this capacity to associate unique vocal sounds with distinct entities. That might be what catalyzed the emergence of language,” Pardo expounded.

The authors of the study were unable to definitively establish if different elephants employed the same appellative for a particular individual, or if they used various appellatives for the same entity..

They were also uncertain about which segments of the vocalizations represented the appellative, with the calls containing additional elements such as the identity, age, gender, and emotional demeanor of the issuer embedded within their acoustic properties, according to the research.

Pardo expressed his eagerness to decipher “how these vocalizations indeed encompass a name, and once I can pinpoint the appellatives for distinct beings, then I believe that would pave the way for various other lines of inquiry.”

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