Elephants may be the first non-human animals to have names for each other, according to a new study that sheds more light on the evolution of language across species.
The yet-to-be peer-reviewed research posted as a preprint in bioRxiv was carried out among African elephants living in the savannah ecosystem in Kenya.
Researchers found the elephants addressed one another using individually specific calls.
Scientists were particularly interested to know whether an elephant’s call for another mimicked the receiver’s own vocalisations similar to the phenomenon observed in dolphins and parrots.
They found this likely was not the case as the elephants were not imitating the receiver’s calls.
“To our knowledge, this study presents the first evidence for vocal addressing of conspecifics [members of the same species] without imitation of the receiver’s calls in non-human animals,” scientists, including those from Colorado State University in the US, wrote in the study.
“This could have important implications for our understanding of language evolution,” they said.
Scientists recorded 527 low-frequency elephant calls in the greater Samburu ecosystem in northern Kenya and 98 calls in the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya.
They identified rumbles specific to individuals and found what seemed to be unique callers and receivers.
Analysing these individual sounds, scientists measured acoustic features specific to these calls and statistically tested if it was possible to predict the identity of the receiver from the call.
Interestingly, calls to the same elephant by different callers seemed to be similar.
“Receivers of calls could be correctly identified from call structure statistically significantly better than chance,” scientists said.
Overall, they could find 114 unique callers and 119 unique receivers.
The researchers played recordings of calls addressed specifically to 17 of the elephants to see how they responded.
This seemed to confirm the existence of vocal labels similar to names as “subjects approached the speaker more quickly… and vocalised more quickly… in response to test playbacks than control playbacks”, researchers said.
This behaviour, observed in elephants for the first time, could be advantageous to them as even closely bonded members of the species tend to communicate and coordinate over long distances via rumbles.
Researchers believe having names allows elephants to attract the attention of a specific individual and enhance their coordinating ability for moving to and from resources when they are out of sight from one another.
In further studies, scientists hope to further understand what kind of pressures from the environment likely drove elephants to adapt to using names.
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