Can elephants remember each other’s names?

3 days ago

Image: © maria t hoffman/Stock.adobe.com

A team of ecologists used machine learning to probe whether elephants have names for each other by analysing their deep rumbles. The findings have been promising.

Scientists using AI models to study sounds made by African elephants have found evidence that the animals may have specific names for each other.

While humans are the only species known to call each other by names, some other animals, such as bottlenose dolphins or orange-fronted parakeets, are known to identify each other by mimicking the signature calls of those they are addressing.

Elephants are renowned for their memory and highly social disposition. Some behavioural ecologists such as Dr Michael Pardo from Cornell University have long suspected that elephants’ communication is more sophisticated than previously understood because of their rich social relationships.

“There’s a lot more sophistication in animal lives than we are typically aware,” said Pardo, who is the lead author of a study on the topic published in Nature Ecology & Evolution yesterday (10 June). “Elephants’ communication may be even more complex than we previously realised.”

To investigate, Pardo and his colleagues have been recording the deep rumbles of wild female African savannah elephants and their offspring since 1986. Known scientifically as Loxodonta africana, these elephants live in southern Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, as well as in the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in the country’s north.

The team analysed 469 rumbles using a machine learning technique and found that the model was able to correctly identify which elephant was being addressed 27.5pc of the time.

This, Pardo and his colleagues said, is a significantly higher success rate than when the model was fed with random audio as a control, suggesting the rumbles carry information intended only for a specific elephant.

The team then played the recordings of these rumbles to 17 elephants and compared their reactions. They found that the elephants became more vocal and moved more quickly towards the speaker when they heard their ‘name’ compared with when they heard rumbles directed at other elephants.

“They could tell if a call was addressed to them just by hearing that call,” said Pardo.

While more evidence is needed to confirm whether elephants do indeed call each other by name, Dr Hannah Mumby, who was not involved in the study, said the findings are a “very promising start”.

“Conserving elephants goes far beyond population numbers,” said Mumby, a behavioural and evolutionary ecologist at the University of Hong Kong. According to her, understanding elephants’ social relationships and the role of each individual in the group is important for conservation efforts.

Now, the team wants to explore how elephants encode this information through their rumbles and find out whether they also name places or even talk about each other. “[That would] open up a whole range of other questions we could ask,” said Pardo.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic

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