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Elephants may refer to each other by name

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Lots of animals communicate with each other, from tiny mice to enormous whales. But none of those forms of communication share all but a small fraction of the richness of human language. Still, finding new examples of complex communications can tell us things about the evolution of language and what cognitive capabilities are needed for it.

On Monday, researchers report what may be the first instance of a human-like language ability in another species. They report that elephants refer to each other by individual names, and the elephant being referred to recognizes when it’s being mentioned. The work could be replicated with a larger population and number of calls, but the finding is consistent with what we know about the sophisticated social interactions of these creatures.

What’s in a name?

We use names to refer to each other so often that it’s possible to forget just how involved their use is. We recognize formal and informal names that refer to the same individual, even though those names often have nothing to do with the features or history of that person. We easily handle hundreds of names, including those of people we haven’t interacted with in decades. And we do this in parallel with the names of thousands of places, products, items, and so on.

And, as far as we’ve known, there’s very little like that capacity in the animal world. The closest examples that have been firmly established are what are termed “signature calls.” These are cases where an individual makes consistently makes a distinctive vocalization that acts as its signature. In a couple of cases (birds and porpoises), other individuals will sometimes mimic another’s signature call in order to refer to that individual.

While this ability shows the capacity of these species to recognize other individuals and refer to them, the “names” used are nothing more than mimicry. There’s a big gap between that and recognizing a name like “Ken Fisher” that makes no reference to any individual properties of that individual.

If we had to pick a species that might have a use for names, elephants would probably be high on the list. They’re
long-lived, have complex social interactions, and are already known to communicate using low rumbles. We know they have distinct calls used in some specific social contexts.

So, a team of researchers at Colorado State University collaborated with groups in Kenya involved in elephant conservation to test whether they might refer to each other via something similar to a name.

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