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Faith Nyasuguta

African elephants respond to individual names, making them one of the few wild animal species known to do so, according to new research published in Nature Ecology & Evolution. These names are complex low rumbles audible over long distances on the savannah.

Biologists from Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources used machine learning to detect these unique calls in recordings made in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve and Amboseli National Park. They confirmed their findings by playing the sounds back to individual elephants, who responded energetically by flapping their ears and lifting their trunks when hearing their specific names.

Professor and co-author George Wittemeyer explained that the team had to get close to the animals to capture the complexity of their calls. “They speak infrasonically and sonically. About half of the sound in their call is below our level of hearing, so we had to use a special microphone to record these calls,” he said.

Researchers followed the elephants in jeeps to observe who called out and who responded. For instance, a mother might call to her calf, or a matriarch might summon a straggler back to the group. Wittemeyer noted, “Elephants do these interesting behaviors where a call from a matriarch can make the whole group respond and gather around her, while a seemingly similar call might only get a response from a single elephant.”

/The Conversation/

This kind of individual recognition is extremely rare among wild animals. Similar naming abilities have been observed in dolphins and parrots, which, like elephants, can learn unique new sounds throughout their lives.

Michael Pardo, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University, highlighted the potential for further research into elephant communication. “There’s a lot of potential to learn more about elephant calls. I think we’ve just scratched the surface of just how complex their communication is,” he said.

Wittemeyer added that while they know elephants are highly social and vocal, much of their communication remains a mystery. “It’s quite complicated, the structure of their calls, and we know that if we could get insight into what they’re saying, we could really gain a new perspective on how they think,” he concluded.


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Faith Nyasuguta

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