AI reveals what elephants are saying – and it’s very human

AI reveals what elephants are saying – and it’s very human

Elephants may be more like humans than we realised (Picture: Getty)

There’s no fear like seeing someone approaching and realising you can’t remember their name.

Well, that probably isn’t a worry elephants have – not because they don’t use names, but thanks to their famously good memories.

Yes, scientists have just discovered that the (mostly) gentle giants address each other in the wild with name-like calls, a rare ability among non-human animals.

The team subsequently called African elephants by their names – and the elephants answered back.

The findings could suggest elephants have a much more complex system of vocal communication than thought.

Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) in the US, along with conservation groups Save the Elephants and ElephantVoices, used artificial intelligence to confirm that elephant calls contained a name-like component identifying the intended recipient.

When the team played back recorded calls, elephants responded affirmatively to calls that were addressed to them by calling back or approaching the speaker.

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But calls meant for other elephants received less of a reaction, according to the findings published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Lead author Dr Michael Pardo, of CSU, said: ‘Dolphins and parrots call one another by “name” by imitating the signature call of the addressee.

‘By contrast, our data suggest that elephants do not rely on imitation of the receiver’s calls to address one another, which is more similar to the way in which human names work.’

He says the ability to learn to produce new sounds is rare among animals but necessary for identifying individuals by name.

Dr Pardo explained that arbitrary communication – where a sound represents an idea but does not imitate it – expands communication capability and is considered a next-level cognitive skill.

Co-author Professor George Wittemyer, of CSU and chairman of the scientific board of Save the Elephants, said: ‘If all we could do was make noises that sounded like what we were talking about, it would vastly limit our ability to communicate.’

Two juvenile elephants greet each other in Samburu National Reserve in Kenya (Picture: George Wittemyer/SWNS)

Professor Wittemyer said that the use of arbitrary vocal labels indicates that elephants may be capable of abstract thought, and although elephant and human evolution diverged tens of millions of years ago, both species are ‘socially complex’ and highly communicative.

Elephants function within family units, social groups and a larger clan structure similar to the complex social networks humans maintain.

Professor Wittemyer said similar needs likely drove development naming in both species.

He said: ‘It’s probably a case where we have similar pressures, largely from complex social interactions.

‘That’s one of the exciting things about this study, it gives us some insight into possible drivers of why we evolved these abilities.’

An elephant family comforts their calf (Picture: George Wittemyer/SWNS)

The researchers explained that elephants are talkative, communicating with one another vocally in addition to sight, scent and touch, with their calls conveying information such as the caller’s identity, age, sex and emotional state.

Their vocalisations – from trumpeting to low rumbling of their vocal cords – span a broad frequency spectrum, including infrasonic sounds below the audible range of the human ear.

Elephants can coordinate group movements over long distances using these calls.

Dr Kurt Fristrup, a research scientist in CSU’s College of Engineering, developed a new signal processing technique to detect subtle differences in call structure.

He and Dr Pardo trained a machine-learning model to correctly identify which elephant a call was addressed to based only on its acoustic features.

‘Our finding that elephants are not simply mimicking the sound associated with the individual they are calling was the most intriguing,’ said Dr Fristrup.

‘The capacity to utilise sonic labels for other individuals suggests that other kinds of labels or descriptors may exist in elephant calls.’

When the researchers played back samples, the elephants responded ‘energetically’ and positively to recordings of their friends and family members calling to them.

A mother elephant and two calves in northern Kenya (Picture: George Wittemyer/SWNS)

But the team found that they didn’t react with enthusiasm or move toward calls directed to others, showing that they recognised their names.

Dr Pardo, now at Cornell University, said: ‘They were probably temporarily confused by the playback but eventually just dismissed it as a strange event and went on with their lives.’

The study spanned four years and included 14 months of intensive fieldwork in Kenya, following elephants in a vehicle and recording their vocalisations.

About 470 distinct calls were captured from 101 unique callers corresponding with 117 unique receivers in Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park.

The research team say much more data is needed to isolate the names within the calls and determine whether elephants name other things they interact with, such as food, water and places.

But they believe new insights into elephant cognition and communication revealed by the study strengthen the case for their conservation.

Elephants are classified as endangered as a result of poaching for their ivory tusks and habitat loss due to development.

While talking with elephants remains a distant dream, Professor Wittemyer said that being able to communicate with them could be a ‘gamechanger’ for their protection.

He added: ‘It’s tough to live with elephants, when you’re trying to share a landscape and they’re eating crops.

‘I’d like to be able to warn them, “Do not come here. You’re going to be killed if you come here”.’

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