Scientists used AI to figure out elephants have names for themselves

  • 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 conceptual, 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 detect and differentiate patterns in the elephant rumblings, Michael Pardo, a lead author on the study told Business Insider.

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.

Pardo said that while elephants in captivity respond to names humans give them, like dogs and cats do, "this is one of very few examples of animals addressing each other by name or with something similar to a name."

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.

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.

"This suggests that elephants understand the abstract connection between an arbitrary sound and the individual it refers to," Pardo told BI, adding that if elephants can understand abstract names, it's possible they can also think abstractly about other things. And they may even use names for other objects too, according to the study's authors.

"It may tell us something about how a critical prerequisite for language, vocal production learning, evolved," Pardo said. "Vocal production learning is the ability to learn to produce new sounds, and it is rare among animals."

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

"This raises the possibility that human ancestors may have initially developed vocal production learning to call one another by name, and then later this allowed fully fledged language to develop," Pardo told BI.

That means that names could have preceded language itself.

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

Read the original article on Business Insider