Vocal Creativity in Elephant Sound Production
Mammal Communication Lab, Department of Behavioral and Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, 1030 Vienna, Austria
Gfai Tech GmbH, 12489 Berlin, Germany
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Martine Meunier
Received: 5 July 2021 / Revised: 1 August 2021 / Accepted: 2 August 2021 / Published: 5 August 2021
Elephants are known for their complex vocalization system and for being able to imitate sounds. Here, we show that African elephants apply unusual and individualistic sound production mechanisms to generate idiosyncratic sounds. These sounds are produced by manipulating non-phonatory structures, e.g., applying an ingressive airflow at the trunk tip to emit extraordinarily high-frequency sounds or repeatedly contract superficial muscles at the trunk base to generate lower-frequency pulsated sounds. Intriguingly, each individual establishes its own distinctive sound-producing strategy (e.g., contracting different muscle bundles). The production of these sounds on cue is encouraged via positive reinforcement training. This suggests that social feedback and reinforcement can facilitate vocal creativity and learning behavior in elephants. Social interactions and positive feedback are also crucial for early speech learning in human infants. Increasing knowledge on sound production plasticity in elephants—long-living, highly social mammals—is crucial in the effort to better understand their communicative and vocal learning ability and its function in wild elephant populations.