Tuesday, February 21, 2017

#ElephantTuesdays: Sense and sensibility; our big-brained fellows 🐘

The animal psychology defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems, to learn and to deal with new situations, and the size and complexity of the elephant´s brain certainly reflect this fact.

The elephant brain is the largest among terrestrial mammals, and weighs between 4,5 and 6,5 kilograms. The brains of both African and Asian elephants exhibit features comparable to those of some of the cetaceans and the great apes, including humans. 

 Decades of scientific research have been showing that elephants are among the most intelligent and emotionally complex animals.

According to Dr. Jane Goodall, “A tool-using performance in an animal or bird is specified as the use of an external object as a functional extension of mouth or beak, hand or claw, in the attainment of an immediate goal. This goal may be related to the obtaining of food, care of the body, or repulsion of a predator, intruder.”. In this sense, the ability of elephants to manufacture and use tools to solve problems creatively is a good example of intelligence. They use a wide variety of tools both in wild and captive scenarios, for example to reduce ectoparasites, for thermoregulation and to get and manipulate food by using their finger-like tip of their prehensile trunk

In the following video, the adult female is removing some ground and taking a sand bath for thermoregulation and/or reducing parasites; according to the tool use definition, it wouldn´t be appropriate to talk about tool use in this particular case as she is not using any external object to achieve her goal, but it is interesting how she uses her right leg as a shovel to fill up her trunk with sand:

original video: ACP000cg74

Like humans, great apes and dolphins, as large-brained species showing a greater developed cerebral cortex, elephants have the amazing capability to learn complicated tasks and retain that information for longer. They have been seen sticking wood pieces between their trunk and a tusk and keeping them for the right moment to be used; this fact reflects the planning skills of intelligent species:

Original video: ACP000cgv8

The empathic behavior in elephants is another sign of intelligence, and can be seen for example in allomothers assisting a female while giving birth by surrounding her and the newborn in a protective and supportive manner

Consciousness is one more potential proof of intelligence; apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known to possess the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror (a standard test of self-awareness).

Elephants show social and ecological memory: they recognize a large number of individuals in their own herd or in others. They remember resources such as the location of ephemeral water sources or food available.

Here´s a heart touching tale about elephants remembering their own kind:
Two elephants called Shirley (~53) and Jenny (~30) met in The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee after 23 years apart. Their reactions showed obvious signs that they knew each other. Shirley started to display mothering behavior, like protecting Jenny from the sun and harm. They spent the rest of their lives together like mother-daughter. It was then known that Shirley and Jenny had been together in a circus when Jenny was a calf. See what happens when they meet:


Self-recognition in an Asian elephant; Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans B. M. de Waal, Diana Reiss (2006)


Biology, Medicine, and Surgery of Elephants, Murray E., Fowler and Susan K. Mikota (2006)

Von Elefanten und Menschen, Kurt, Fred (2014)

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