We, human beings, might consider ourselves to be the most powerful species on the planet. But as the introduction to this article puts it, science keeps questioning that. Something that we believe is unique to us – our names for identifiers, is apparently not that unique either. The article talks about research by Michael Pardo of Colorado State University:

“The “names” the paper describes are not, it must be conceded, obviously distinctive in the way that human names or dolphin whistles are. They are, rather, hidden in the details of the low-frequency rumbles that form an important part of elephant communication. These rumbling calls, which can cause ground vibrations several kilometres away, are used to keep in touch with group members who are out of sight. They are also made when individuals greet others and are regularly directed by females towards young in the matriarchal groups that are the building blocks of elephant society.

Using historical recordings from Amboseli and specially collected ones from Samburu, Dr Pardo and his colleagues analysed thousands of such calls, alongside information on who made them and who they were apparently directed towards. They then put them through a machine-learning protocol that chewed them up and attempted to identify patterns.

As with dolphin whistles, it has long been known that elephant rumbles are individually recognisable. One thing to establish, therefore, was whether, when communicating with another elephant, the caller was mimicking the recipient. The software suggested this was not the case. It was, however, the case that calls were receiver-specific. This showed up in several ways. First, for a given caller, the receiver could be predicted from the sonic spectrum of its rumble. Second, rumbles directed by a particular caller to a particular recipient were more similar to each other than those made by that caller to other recipients. Third, recipients responded more strongly to playbacks of calls originally directed towards them than to those originally intended for another animal.

On top of this, rumbles directed by different callers towards the same recipient were more similar to each other than to other calls within the data set, suggesting that everyone uses the same name for a given recipient. All of which adds to the evidence that elephant intelligence does indeed parallel the human sort in many ways—and makes their slaughter by humans, which threatens many of their populations, even more horrifying.”

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