If you want to hear elephants gossiping about each other in Kenya, you can travel south to Amboseli National Park or explore the large Samburu ecosystem in the north. In both areas, you’ll find herds of African savannah elephants, which – according to a new study – became the first animals outside of humans to give each other real names.
The groundbreaking new study, which has not been peer-reviewed, is by eight researchers from the US, Kenya and Norway and offers promising insights into how non-human species communicate with conspecifics or other conspecifics.
“Here, we show that wild African elephants address each other with individually specific calls,” the authors wrote. “Our findings provide the first evidence that a non-human species individually approaches conspecifics without mimicking the receiver.”
Researchers have described a unique element in elephant naming behavior that sets the species apart. Other animals with similar behavior – such as bottlenose dolphins and parrots – have specific, name-like calls for individual members of their groups. But these name calls are just imitations of whatever unique or characteristic sound the individual member most frequently makes. The other group members are just imitating the unique sound of one group member.
“If analogous non-imitative names were found in other species, this could have important implications for our understanding of the evolution of language.”
Elephants, however, do not appear to imitate a call-receiving limb. Instead, they appear to be creating an entirely new name for the group member – a name that the group member did not choose for himself and that has nothing to do with any individual vocal quirks he may have.
“Labeling objects or individuals without relying on imitation of the sounds produced by that object or individual is key to the expressive power of language,” the researchers wrote. “Thus, if analogous non-imitative names were found in other species, this could have important implications for our understanding of the evolution of language.”
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But how can you know which elephant words are names when you don’t speak elephant? The same way you would identify personal names among humans whose language you don’t speak – by looking for unique sounds that all members use when referring to an individual, but that no one uses when referring to other things in the world.
However, isolating these specific sounds requires significant data collection. Analyzing this amount of data also requires a keener ear than humans. Elephant vocabulary is found in the nuances of the animals’ complex low-frequency booming sounds, which register at just 1 to 20 hertz but can be heard by other elephants up to six miles away. (Those giant ears are good for something.) And noises for food, for example, are subtly different from noises for predator warnings or for referencing nearby objects.
The team recorded 625 elephant calls in their cross-country survey and then leveraged a machine learning algorithm to analyze the collection, classifying the recordings by matching the elephants’ behaviors with unique sounds. When an elephant and her cubs were separated from a group and returned to the group when they heard a unique call from other members of the group, scientists were able to identify its name. This technique led them to identify 119 individual elephant names, or about 20% of the recordings.
Even more remarkable, 17 of the elephants appeared to recognize their own names when the study’s lead author, Michael Pardo of Colorado State University, played recordings of other elephants calling them.
“We predicted that they would act more quickly and call more in response to calls that were originally directed to them,” Pardo said in a research presentation. “And that’s exactly what we found.”
The elephants were also quicker to respond when the recordings were of other people calling their names, as opposed to when the researchers played recordings of elephant conversations without names.
So how close are we to getting some juicy elephant gossip?
“I think it would also be fascinating to know, if we can identify these names and isolate them, whether elephants use names to talk about other individuals in their absence,” Pardo said. “It would be very interesting to know whether elephants use vocal labeling or names outside the context of individuals. For example, they may use names to refer to places.”
But for now, Pardo said, the key is getting better data sets for further analysis of the team’s initial findings.
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