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Scientists used AI to learn elephants may have a language and names like humans

Published Jun 16th, 2024 10:34AM EDT
african elephant
Image: peterfodor / Adobe

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Elephant communication may more complex than we previously thought. That’s because new evidence suggests that elephants likely have unique names for each other, which they use when addressing specific elephants. It’s an intriguing discovery that was only made possible thanks to machine learning.

According to a study featured in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers used machine learning to analyze hundreds of wild elephant calls captured between 1986 and 2022. More specifically, they looked at three types of “rumbles,” including a greeting, a caregiving rumble, and a contact calling rumble.

These rumbles, the researchers say, are the primary form of communication that elephants rely on. And while elephants do use other rumbles to communicate—including a “let’s go” rumble—these three are the most likely to include any tie to specific names.

What the researchers found, by looking at the data gathered by the AI, is that the elephants appear to attach specific names for each of the elephants they were addressing when using the three rumbles mentioned above. More specifically, these names did not appear to simply be imitations of what each elephant sounds like—a method used by dolphins and parrots, which address each other by mimicking the receiver’s voice.

Instead, the names used in elephant communications appear to be more abstract, like those humans use for each other. This, the researchers say, could suggest that elephants are capable of abstract thought, making them far more intelligent than we previously understood them to be. It is, of course, a huge discovery, and one that could fundamentally change our understanding of these massive creatures completely.

Further, the researchers experimented with recording and replaying the calls of certain elephants. They found that a mother elephant would raise her head and call back when they replayed the sound of her daughter calling out to her. This suggests that the elephants know the call was meant for them simply by hearing it, the study’s author’s told CNN.

There does appear to be some overlap within elephant families, though. And the general consensus seems mixed as to whether or not each individual elephant has its own name, or whether or not they share names in some way. Still, this discovery brings us closer than ever to understanding how elephants communicate with each other. It also gives us a glimpse into what their minds are capable of.

This is just another way that AI is helping us decode the mysteries of nature. Previously, scientists worked with AI to decode the secret language of dogs, and that research has proven very successful, though it’s still a long way from reaching its climax.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.