Researchers Decode Elephant Communication

Lauded by Scientific American as the “first ‘Google Translate’ for elephants,” a team of researchers at the non-profit animal conservation organization ElephantVoices has developed a digitized collection of sounds and behaviors decoding methods of communication used by elephants. The program, also called the Elephant Ethogram, includes a collection of more than 500 behaviors and almost 3,000 videos, photographs, and audio files of elephant vocalizations.

Elephants are well-known within the animal kingdom for having a highly complex form of communication compared to other non-human animals, however this research project — which is ongoing — is the first digitized collection of elephant behaviors and vocalizations. “At a time when biodiversity is plummeting and the lives of elephants are being heavily impacted by humans, we also want to spell out to the world what we stand to lose,” Joyce Poole, co-founder of ElephantVoices, told Scientific American.


Animal communication remains a topic of debate in linguistics and other fields — the question of whether or not non-humans have communication systems that can be considered language is fairly controversial. Earlier this year, MultiLingual reported on the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI), a project spearheaded by a team of researchers at Texas A&M who hope to use artificial intelligence to “translate” the vocalizations of sperm whales.

The Elephant Ethogram project is a bit different from CETI — it’s not AI-driven, however it does consist of a large pool of digitized data, somewhat resembling the corpora often used in machine translation and corpus linguistics. An ethogram is a collection of behaviors observed in a certain species of animals — historically, these have largely included written observations and photographs of behavior, however technological advancements have allowed scientists to collect video and audio records in addition to these written descriptions.

The recently developed ethogram serves to shed light on elephant behaviors and vocalizations in an accessible fashion, allowing human researchers to easily decipher (or perhaps, “translate”) communication between elephants, making it a valuable step toward better understanding non-human communication systems.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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