Scientists used AI to discover elephants calling each other by name.

Elephants in Kenya in 2023.
Eric Laforgue/Art in All of Us/Getty Images
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  • Scientists used AI to find elephants that likely share unique names with each other.
  • Machine learning analyzed hundreds of elephant calls recorded in Kenya between 1986 and 2022.
  • The ability of elephants to recognize calls as names suggests that they may be capable of abstract thought.

According to a new study, scientists using AI tools have discovered that elephants have unique names for each other.

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 journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. .

Specifically, the researchers looked at three different types of communication, or “rumbles,” among the endangered species of elephants: “contact calling” is when an elephant is calling to another more than 50 meters away; “Greetings” are rumbled when elephants are close together, and “grooming” calls are heard when a female elephant is comforting a calf.

The authors explained that they did not analyze other types of rumbles, such as “let's go” rumbles, because elephants are less likely to use specific names in this context.

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

Unlike dolphins and parrots, which address each other by mimicking the receiver's voice, these elephant calls are not identical to what each elephant sounds like.

They are more conceptual, like the names humans use for each other.

This could mean that elephants have a greater capacity for abstract thought than we previously thought.

The machine learning model helped the researchers interpret the acoustic structure of each call to determine which elephant was being addressed. This wouldn't have been possible without the help of AI, as humans alone aren't able to detect and distinguish patterns in elephant vocalizations, Michael Pardo, one of the study's lead authors, told Business Insider.

When researchers replayed calls originally addressed to one elephant, the elephant responded differently than calls from another individual, the researchers explain in the study.

Researchers posted a video on YouTube showing a mother elephant listening to her daughter. Hearing the daughter's call, the mother raises her head and calls back.

Perdue said that while elephants in captivity respond to names that humans give them, like dogs and cats do, “this is one of the few examples of animals that call each other by name or a name.” Addressing something similar.”

Still, the researchers could not identify which part of the call contained the elephant's name, noting that each call was influenced by the caller's characteristics, such as his age, gender, emotional state, and behavioral context. is coded simultaneously.

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 found “different callers addressing the same recipient. At least I found some harmony.” And, the authors wrote, it's possible that each elephant in a family uses the same name to address a particular member.

“This suggests that elephants understand an abstract relationship between an arbitrary sound and the person it refers to,” Pardo told BI, adding that if elephants can understand abstract names, it is possible that They can also think abstractly about other things. And they can use the name for other objects as well, according to the study's authors.

“This can tell us something about how language, a prerequisite for learning sound production, evolved,” Pardo said. “Acoustic production learning is the ability to learn to produce new sounds, and it is rare in animals.”

And studying doesn't just help us understand elephants, it can also help us understand ourselves.

“This raises the possibility that early human ancestors may have developed learning to produce sounds to call each other by name, and that this later allowed the development of full-fledged language. Pardo told BI.

This means that names can precede language.

Pardo said the study shows not only how intelligent elephants are, but also how important social bonds are in their lives — just like ours.

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