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African elephants are talkative creatures, wandering around the savanna, trumpeting and rumbling to each other to communicate information and even coordinate group movements over long distances.

Now, scientists have learned that they call each other by name.

“Our finding that elephants are not simply mimicking the sound associated with the individual they are calling was the most intriguing,” said Kurt Fristrup, a research scientist at Colorado State University, which was involved in the study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. “The capacity to utilize arbitrary sonic labels for other individuals suggests that other kinds of labels or descriptors may exist in elephant calls.”

Elephant vocalizations – from trumpeting to the low rumbling of their vocal cords – span a broad frequency spectrum, including infrasonic sounds below the audible range of the human ear, according to the study.

To study whether wild African elephants employ individualized vocal identifiers, much like human names, researchers utilized machine learning to analyze elephant rumbles they had collected in Kenya: Researchers captured nearly 470 distinct calls from 101 unique callers and found that about 27 percent of these calls could be identified by their intended recipient, thereby confirming that these creatures recognize calls specifically addressed to them.

For example, elephants responded more vigorously to calls directed at them, demonstrating clear recognition.

Lead author Michael Pardo explained that, unlike dolphins and parrots, elephants do not imitate calls.

“By contrast, our data suggest that elephants do not rely on imitation of the receiver’s calls to address one another, which is more similar to the way in which human names work,” he said in a statement.

These findings have profound implications: The use of arbitrary vocal labels by elephants suggests they possess advanced cognitive abilities, including a capacity for abstract thought. They also attribute the advanced ability – rare in non-humans – to the complex social structures of elephants, who live in tight-knit family units and larger clans, similar to human societies.

“It’s probably a case where we have similar pressures, largely from complex social interactions,” added co-author George Wittemeyer. “That’s one of the exciting things about this study, it gives us some insight into possible drivers of why we evolved these abilities.”

He said that more research is needed to determine if the world’s largest terrestrial animals also name other things they interact with.

Meanwhile, this discovery further strengthens the case for their conservation, especially as African savanna elephants are currently endangered due to poaching and habitat loss, according to CBS News.

With populations declining by at least 60 percent over the past 50 years, innovative conservation strategies are urgently needed.

Wittemeyer and his colleagues believe that directly communicating with the elephants could make a big difference.

“I’d like to be able to warn them, ‘Do not come here,’” he said. “‘You’re going to be killed if you come here.’”

Correction: In Thursday’s THE WORLD, BRIEFLY section, we said in our “The Politics of Entropy” item that Italy has been dogged by more than 770 governments since the end of World War Two. That number was incorrect – the correct amount is 70 administrations. We apologize for the error.

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