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According to a recent study, elephants may possess the ability to assign names to each other, making them the first non-human animals to do so. This research provides further insight into the development of language among different species.
The research, which has not yet been reviewed by peers, was published as a preprint on bioRxiv. It focused on African elephants residing in Kenya’s savannah ecosystem.
The study revealed that elephants communicate with each other through distinct calls that are unique to each individual.
Researchers were keen to determine if an elephant’s vocalizations in response to another’s were imitations, much like what has been observed in dolphins and parrots.
It was determined that the elephants were not mimicking the receiver’s vocalizations, indicating that this was unlikely to be the case.
The researchers, including those from Colorado State University in the US, reported that this study is the first to demonstrate non-human animals using vocalization to communicate with members of the same species without imitating the receiver’s calls.
They stated that this could have significant implications for our comprehension of how language evolved.
Researchers documented 527 lower-frequency vocalizations from elephants in the larger Samburu region of northern Kenya and 98 calls in the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya.
They identified distinctive rumbles belonging to individuals and discovered apparent unique callers and receivers.
After examining the distinct sounds, researchers calculated acoustic characteristics unique to these vocalizations and performed statistical analyses to determine if it was feasible to forecast the recipient’s identity based on the call.
Surprisingly, the calls made to the elephant by various callers appeared to be alike.
According to researchers, the manner in which calls are structured allows for a statistically significant improvement in accurately identifying the recipients compared to random chance.
In total, they were able to identify 114 distinct individuals making calls and 119 distinct individuals receiving calls.
The scientists played audio recordings directed towards 17 specific elephants to observe their reactions.
According to researchers, this finding supports the idea that vocal labels, similar to names, exist. They observed that “subjects approached the speaker more quickly… and vocalised more quickly… in response to test playbacks than control playbacks”.
This action, observed in elephants for the first time, may be beneficial to them since even highly connected individuals within the species typically use rumbles to communicate and coordinate over large distances.
Scientists theorize that the use of names by elephants enables them to communicate with a particular individual and improve their ability to coordinate movements to and from resources, especially when they are not in each other’s visual range.
In future research, researchers aim to gain a deeper understanding of the environmental factors that influenced elephants to develop the ability to use names.