Socio-acoustics of Asian elephants

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Adam Philips, "Elephant Study Reveals Social Bonds, Communication Skills", VOA 8/29/2011:

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Shermin de Silva, who finished her PhD in biology at Penn last year and is now the director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project at Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka, is featured in this slide show explaining some of her research:

You can read her dissertation here: "Socioecology, acoustic communication and demography of Asian elephants in Sri Lanka".

And a couple of relevant recent papers:

Shermin de Silva, "Acoustic communication in the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus maximus", Behaviour 147(7), 2010.

Existing knowledge of acoustic communication in elephants is based primarily on African species (Loxodonta africana and Loxodonta cyclotis). There has been comparatively less study of communication in Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). In order to provide a basis for understanding the evolution and function of acoustic communication in proboscideans, I present a quantitative description of vocal communication in wild Asian elephants. I classify calls by acoustic features into 8 'single' calls, 5 'combination' calls and one possibly unique male call for a total of at least 14 distinct call types. Some of these vocalizations have never before been described. Certain low-frequency calls are individually distinct. Acoustic signals occur in a wide range of social contexts, with some differences in call production among age and sex classes.

Shermin de Silva, Ashoka DG Ranjeewa, and Sergey Kryazhimskiy, "The dynamics of social networks among female Asian elephants", BMC Ecology 2011.


  1. Satyabroto Banerji said,

    August 31, 2011 @ 11:05 pm

    Is there any such work for crows?

    [(myl) L M G T F Y]

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 5:41 am

    Key point: there's no claim of language ability here. The favored terms are "acoustic communication" or "vocal communication". These are manifested in "calls" or "features".

    Shermin did her work in the Department of Biology. For those who want to learn more about it, here's her home page:

  3. michael farris said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 5:55 am

    I'm sure that in no time at all some msm outlet will buillon cube this into "Researcher discovers elephants have language" or "African and Asian elephants have different languages" or similar nonsense.

  4. Theodore said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    @michael farris: Then we'll have political ads decrying the funds wasted on programs to provide interpreters between African and Asian elephants.

  5. Wug said,

    September 1, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Honest question, not trolling. If African and Asian elephants use different acoustic signals for the purpose of communication (even if the calls are simple 'WTF a lion', 'I'm hungry', etc.), _would_ that count as different languages, or would you need explicit ordering of elements? e.g., call1+call2 = 'WTF a lion'

    [(myl) It's a fact that the acoustic signals are different — and of course similar inter-species differences in vocal (or other) communicative displays are well documented for other critters. So that not only would, but does "count as different". It's not suprising that there should be differences, since African and Asian elephants have been genetically separate for about 6 million years, which is similar to the length of time that separates humans from chimpanzees.

    The relevant question is whether any of the systems of vocal (or visual or etc.) displays used by non-human animals should be called "languages".

    Most linguists think that this is a misleading broadening of the term, since there is a fairly long list of characteristics that all human languages share, which are largely or entirely missing from other kinds of non-human animal communication. To some extent this is a matter of definition, like deciding whether (intact, in-mouth) teeth count as "tools".]

  6. Current Times 18 | this cage is worms said,

    September 3, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    […] The Language Log has a whole post about Shermin de Silva and her work with elephants and communicati…I think that it's really, really interesting, and I encourage you to check it out; […]

  7. Shermin de Silva said,

    October 3, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    Thanks for the post Mark! And thanks for the readers' comments.
    @Wug – while the term 'language' is reserved as Mark points out, differences among species or even sub-populations of the same species can and do occur. Among songbirds for instance this was discovered decades ago, by Peter Marler and other researchers. Such differences are termed 'dialects' by way of analogy with human language.

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