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'Incredibly social': Researchers make stunning find on how African elephants interact with each other

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Osh the Elephant turns 30 at the Oakland Zoo

The beloved elephant Osh has celebrated his 30th birthday with an assortment of delightful treats, including watermelons, popsicles, peanut butter and bran snow cones and even a personalized piñata.

A recently published study claims that the sounds of African elephants may have a lot more significance than humans think.

The research, which was published in a journal called Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday, found that African elephants call each other unique names.

The study explains that researchers followed elephants around to observe how they communicated to each other, particularly by taking careful note of which elephants called out sounds and which elephants appeared to respond.

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The names came in the form of low rumbles, which elephants can hear from long distances. Some of the sounds elephants make are too low to be heard by humans, which was a challenge in the study.

A new study claims that African elephants can give each other unique names and respond to them. (iStock)

Researchers then used a machine learning model to see if a computer program could determine which elephant was being addressed at a time. 

The machine only guessed the correct elephant around 28% of the time. An author of the study told the Associated Press that researchers were not expecting an astronomically-high percentage of correct guesses.

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"Just like humans, elephants use names, but probably don't use names in the majority of utterances, so we wouldn't expect 100%," Cornell University biologist Mickey Pardo said.

A young male African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Experts also played recordings of the animals' "names" to individual elephants in order to observe their reactions. The elephants responded strongly by flapping their ears, lifting their trunks and appearing energetic when they heard their names.

Elephants are one of very few species that are believed to call each other by unique names, other than humans. 

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Dolphins and parrots are believed to also use names within their species.

Elephants are seen at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, May 3, 2024.  (Hua Hongli/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Wildlife biologists have long known that elephants are social creatures, but one of the study's co-authors says that the research "crack[s] open the door a bit to the elephant mind."

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"Elephants are incredibly social, always talking and touching each other — this naming is probably one of the things that underpins their ability to communicate to individuals," Colorado State University ecologist George Wittemyer told the Associated Press.

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A rescued baby elephant plays with a toy at the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery in the Wild Is Life Sanctuary in Zimbabwe. (Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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