Elephants Talk, Have Names For Each Other, Study Suggests

Jun 12, 2024

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke: “What do you call a 12,000-pound elephant in your living room? Anything it wants!” Now, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, we may be closer to learning a real answer to that question.  

research team at Cornell University used artificial intelligence (AI) to record and study the low-level rumbling noises wild elephants make. It found that elephants seemed to call each other by "name." They seemed to have distinct patterns to their rumbles when they were “talking” to specific members of their herd. The team was led by biologist Mickey Pardo.  

“If the calls have something like a name, you should be able to figure out who the call is addressed to,” Pardo told The New York Times.

Pardo’s team taped 469 African elephant rumbles. It then fed them into AI software. The software matched patterns to specific elephants 27.5% of the time. That might seem low. But it was much higher than in random trials. And it's about the same amount that humans address each other by name. We don’t always repeat the name of the person we’re speaking to, either. 

One finding was perhaps more telling. The team played the recorded sounds back to the elephants. When they did so, they saw that elephants responded quickly to the rumbles matched with their own name. The elephant called by "name" approached the loudspeakers and rumbled a reply.  

More research is needed to see what part of a rumble makes up an elephant’s name. But the new research adds to the pile of evidence showing that humans aren’t the only species that uses complex language.   

Reflect: How might studying animal communication help us understand their behavior and social interactions better?

Gif of elephants playing from GIPHY.

What idea is highlighted by the author throughout the story? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. the importance of elephants in African ecosystems
b. the role of AI technology in modern scientific research
c. the significance of animal communication in understanding species behavior
d. the diversity of wildlife in different regions of the world
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