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Scientists used AI to discover elephants call each other by names

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Elephants in Kenya in 2023.
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Getty Images

  • Scientists used AI to find elephants likely have unique names for each other.
  • Machine learning analyzed hundreds of elephant calls recorded in Kenya between 1986 and 2022.
  • Elephants’ ability to recognize name-like calls indicates they may be capable of abstract thought.

Scientists using AI tools have discovered that elephants likely have unique names for each other, according to a new study.

A group of scientists used machine learning to analyze hundreds of wild African elephant calls recorded in Kenya between 1986 and 2022, publishing their findings on Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Specifically, the researchers looked at three different types of communication, or “rumbles” between the endangered species of elephants: “contact calling” rumbles when an elephant is calling to another that is more than 50 meters away, “greeting” rumbles when elephants are close to each other, and “caregiving” rumbles when a female elephant is comforting a calf.

They did not analyze other types of rumbles, like “let’s go” rumbles, because elephants are less likely to use specific names in that context, the authors explained.

Within each of these types of interactions, the researchers found evidence that elephants address each other with name-like calls specific to each individual — the first time similar behavior has been observed outside humans.

Unlike dolphins and parrots, who address each other by mimicking the receiver’s voice, these elephant calls are not imitations of what each elephant sounds like.

They’re more abstract, like the names humans use for each other.

That could mean elephants have a capacity for abstract thought greater than we previously understood.

A machine learning model helped the researchers interpret each call’s acoustic structure to determine which elephant was being addressed. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of AI, because humans alone aren’t able to differentiate elephant rumblings very well, The New York Times reported.

When the researchers replayed a call originally addressed to one elephant, that elephant responded differently than to calls meant for another individual, the researchers explain in the study.

The researchers posted a video to YouTube that shows a mother elephant hearing a playback of her daughter calling to her. When she hears her daughter’s call, the mother raises her head and calls back.

“So that meant that the elephants could tell if a call was meant for them just by hearing that call,” Mickey Pardo, a lead author on the study, told CNN.

Still, the researchers couldn’t identify which part of the call contained the elephant’s name, noting that each call is also simultaneously coded with the caller’s characteristics, like its age, sex, emotional state, and behavioral context.

Pardo told CNN that the study “tells us something about the cognitive abilities of elephants because if elephants are addressing one another in this way, they’re basically coming up with names for each other.”

“That implies some capacity for abstract thought,” Pardo added. “They have to be able to learn this arbitrary sound and associate it with other individuals and essentially call each other by name.”

And if the elephants have names for each other, it’s also possible that they have names for other objects too, according to the study’s authors.

The authors explained that although they found mixed support for their hypothesis that different elephants use the same name to refer to a fellow elephant, they did find “at least some convergence among different callers addressing the same receiver.” And, the authors wrote, it’s possible that every elephant within a family uses the same name to address a specific member.

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