Elephants in Etosha National Park

(Photo by Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images)

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — They say elephants never forget a face, and now as it turns out, they seem to remember names too. That is, the “names” they have for one another. Yes, believe it or not, a new study shows that elephants actually have the rare ability to identify one another through unique calls, essentially giving one another human-like names when they converse.

Scientists from Colorado State University, along with a team of researchers from Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices, used machine learning to make this fascinating discovery. Their work suggests that elephants possess a level of communication and abstract thought that is more similar to ours than previously believed.

In the study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, the researchers analyzed hundreds of recorded elephant calls from Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. By training a sophisticated model to identify the intended recipient of each call based on its unique acoustic features, they could confirm that elephant calls contain a name-like component, a behavior they had suspected based on observation.

“Dolphins and parrots call one another by ‘name’ by imitating the signature call of the addressee. 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,” says lead author Michael Pardo, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral researcher at CSU and Save the Elephants, in a statement.

Once the team pinpointed the specific calls to the corresponding elephants, the scientists played back the recordings and observed their reactions. When the calls were addressed to them, the elephants responded positively by calling back or approaching the speaker. In contrast, calls meant for other elephants elicited less enthusiasm, demonstrating that the elephants recognized their own “names.”

Two juvenile elephants greet each other in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya.
Two juvenile elephants greet each other in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. (Credit: George Wittemyer)

Elephants’ Brains Even More Complex Than Realized

The ability to learn and produce new sounds, a prerequisite for naming individuals, is uncommon in the animal kingdom. This form of arbitrary communication, where a sound represents an idea without imitating it, is considered a higher-level cognitive skill that greatly expands an animal’s capacity to communicate.

Co-author George Wittemyer, a professor at CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and chairman of the scientific board of Save the Elephants, elaborated on the implications of this finding: “If all we could do was make noises that sounded like what we were talking about, it would vastly limit our ability to communicate.” He adds that the use of arbitrary vocal labels suggests that elephants may be capable of abstract thought.

To arrive at these conclusions, the researchers embarked on a four-year study that included 14 months of intensive fieldwork in Kenya. They followed elephants in vehicles, recording their vocalizations and capturing approximately 470 distinct calls from 101 unique callers and 117 unique receivers.

Kurt Fristrup, a research scientist in CSU’s Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering, developed a novel signal processing technique to detect subtle differences in call structure. Together with Pardo, he trained a machine-learning model to correctly identify the intended recipient of each call based solely on its acoustic features. This innovative approach allowed the researchers to uncover the hidden “names” within the elephant calls.

The study also revealed that, much like humans, elephants don’t always address each other by name in conversation. Calling an individual by name was more common over long distances or when adults were communicating with calves.

These new insights into elephant cognition and communication underscore the importance of their conservation. Elephants, classified as endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, require vast spaces to thrive and can sometimes come into conflict with human populations. Wittemyer believes that being able to communicate with elephants could be a game-changer for their protection. “It’s tough to live with elephants, when you’re trying to share a landscape and they’re eating crops,” he says. “I’d like to be able to warn them, ‘Do not come here. You’re going to be killed if you come here.'”

While the prospect of conversing with elephants remains a distant dream, this study brings us one step closer to understanding the depth and complexity of their social lives and cognitive abilities. It’s just one more example of how these extraordinary animals possess unique skills unlike most others across the world.

About Steve Fink

Steve Fink is the founder and Editor-In-Chief of StudyFinds.com. He is a veteran journalist who previously served as Vice President of News Engagement for CBS Television Stations' websites. Beginning his career as a sports producer at WJZ-TV in Baltimore in 2001, he previously served as Managing Editor of CBSNewYork.com and WCBSTV.com before joining the company’s corporate digital team in 2010.

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