Home Science and technology Elephants Are the First Non-Human Animals Identified to Use Names, According to AI Research

Elephants Are the First Non-Human Animals Identified to Use Names, According to AI Research

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In a study both fascinating and somewhat expected, a team of biologists and researchers utilising machine learning tools discovered that elephants call each other by names.

For a species renowned for deeply social behaviours such as grieving, collective child-rearing, and long-distance communication using complex low-frequency vocalisations, the use of names appears natural within their societies. However, decoding these ‘Elephantese’ names holds the potential to significantly reduce human-elephant conflict.

Conducted at Colorado State University, the study centred around simple observations. Researchers following a herd in Kenya noted that the matriarch used a specific call to gather all the elephants around her.

However, occasionally, a seemingly identical call would prompt only a single elephant to respond.

To determine if this behaviour was linked to a naming custom, scientists from CSU, Save the Elephants, and ElephantVoices employed machine learning to analyse and categorise vocalisations. They differentiated between calls intended for the entire herd and those meant for individual elephants.

When researchers played recorded calls, CSU press reports stated that elephants responded positively to calls addressed to them, either by calling back or approaching the speaker. Calls directed at other elephants elicited less reaction.

In animal vocal ethnology, using a name is considered an “arbitrary communication,” said study co-author George Wittemyer, a professor at CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and chairman of the scientific board of Save the Elephants. This means a sound represents an idea but doesn’t imitate it.

“If all we could do was make noises that sounded like what we were talking about, it would vastly limit our ability to communicate,” said Wittemyer.

In this context, “arbitrary” means that the sound used as a name could be anything. It’s simply assigned to a thing or a person, indicating thought abstraction, a sign of higher intelligence.

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