The Science Is In: Elephants Are Even Smarter Than We Realized


We now have solid evidence that elephants are some of the most intelligent, social and empathic animals around—so how can we justify keeping them in captivity?

One day in 2010, while taking a stroll in his backyard, Kandula the elephant smelled something scrumptious. The scent pulled his attention skyward. There, seemingly suspended in the air, was a sprig of bamboo decorated with bits of cantaloupe and honeydew. Stretching out his trunk, he managed to get the fruit and break off a piece of the branch, but the rest of the tasty leaves remained tantalizingly out of reach. Without hesitation he marched straight to a large plastic cube in the yard, rolled it just beneath the hovering bamboo and used it as a step stool to pull the whole branch to the ground. Seven-year-old Kandula had never before interacted with a cube in this manner. Determined to satisfy his stomach and his curiosity, he did something scientists did not know elephants could do: he had an aha moment.

A couple weeks earlier a team of researchers led by Diana Reiss and Preston Foerder, then at City University New York, had visited Kandula’s home at the National Zoo in Washington D.C. They placed sticks and sturdy cubes around the yard and strung a kind of pulley system similar to a laundry line between the roof of the elephant house and a tree. From the cable they dangled fruit-tipped bamboo branches of various lengths both within and without of Kandula’s reach. After preparing the aerial snacks they retreated out of sight, turned on a camera and waited to see what the young elephant would do. It took several days for Kandula to achieve his initial insight, but after that he repeatedly positioned and stood on the cube to wrap his trunk around food wherever the scientists suspended it; he learned to do the same with a tractor tire; and he even figured out how to stack giant butcher blocks to extend his reach.

Other elephants had failed similar tests in the past. As it turns out, however, those earlier studies were not so much a failure of the elephant mind as the human one. Unlike people and chimpanzees, elephants rely far more on their exquisite senses of smell and touch than on their relatively poor vision, especially when it comes to food. Previously, researchers had offered elephants only sticks as potential tools to reach dangling or distant treats—a strategy at which chimps excel. But picking up a stick blunts an elephant’s sense of smell and prevents the animal from feeling and manipulating the desired morsel with the tip of its dexterous trunk. Asking an elephant to reach for a piece of food with a stick is like asking a blindfolded man to locate and open a door with his ear. “We are always looking at animals through our human lens—it’s hard not to,” Reiss says. “But now we have an increased appreciation of diverse thinking creatures all around us because of so much research on so many species. It’s fascinating to try and find ways of testing animal minds so they can show us what they are really capable of.”

People have been telling legends of elephant memory and intelligence for thousands of years and scientists have carefully catalogued astounding examples of elephant cleverness in the wild for many decades. In the past 10 years, however, researchers have realized that elephants are even smarter than they thought. As few as eight years ago there were almost no carefully controlled experiments showing that elephants could match chimpanzees and other brainiacs of the animal kingdom in tool use, self-awareness and tests of problem-solving. Because of recent experiments designed with the elephant’s perspective in mind, scientists now have solid evidence that elephants are just as brilliant as they are big: They are adept tool users and cooperative problem solvers; they are highly empathic, comforting one another when upset; and they probably do have a sense of self.

Despite the sharpened awareness of elephant sentience, many zoos around the world continue to maintain or expand their elephant exhibits and increasing numbers of heavily armed poachers are descending on Africa to meet the soaring demand for ivory, killing as many as 35,000 elephants a year. The U.S. recently banned ivory trade, with some exceptions, but there have been no steps toward outlawing elephant captivity. At least a few zoos are using the latest science to transform their elephant enclosures, giving the animals more room to roam as well as intellectually stimulating puzzles. Only some zoos can afford to make such changes, however, and many elephant experts maintain that, given everything we know about the creatures’ mental lives, continuing to keep any of them locked up is inexcusable.

Mental mettle

The modern elephant mind emerged from an evolutionary history that has much in common with our own. The African bush and forest elephants, the Asian elephant, and their extinct relatives, the mammoths, all began to assume their recognizable forms between three and five million years ago in Africa. As Louis Irwin of The University of Texas at El Paso explains, both humans and elephants adapted themselves to life in Africa's forests and savannas around the same time, emigrating to Europe and Asia; both evolved to live long and often migratory lives in highly complex societies; both developed intricate systems of communication; and both experienced a dramatic increase in brain size.

Over the years numerous observations of wild elephants suggested that the big-brained beasts were some of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They remembered the locations of water holes hundreds of kilometers apart, returning to them year after year. They fashioned twigs into switches to shoo flies and plugged drinking holes with chewed up balls of bark. They clearly formed strong social bonds and even seemed to mourn their dead (see “When Animals Mourn” in the July 2013 issue of Scientific American). Yet scientists rarely investigated this ostensibly immense intellect in carefully managed experiments. Instead, researchers looking for evidence of exceptional mental aptitude in nonhuman animals first turned to chimpanzees and, later, to brainy birds like ravens, crows and some parrots. Only in the past 10 years have scientists rigorously tested elephant cognition. Again and again these new studies have corroborated what zoologists inferred from behavior in the wild.

Scientists living among herds of wild elephants have long observed awe-inspiring cooperation between family members. Related elephant mothers and their children stay together throughout life in tight-knit clans, caring for one another’s children and forming protective circles around calves when threatened by lions or poachers. Elephant clan members talk to one another with a combination of gentle chirps, thunderous trumpets and low-frequency rumbles undetectable to humans, as well as nudges, kicks and visual signals such as a tilt of the head or flap of the ear. They deliberate among themselves, make group decisions and applaud their achievements. “Being part of an elephant family is all about unity and working together for the greater good,” says Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices, which promotes the study and ethical care of elephants. “When they are getting ready to do a group charge, for example, they all look to one another: ‘Are we all together? Are we ready to do this?’ When they succeed, they have an enormous celebration, trumpeting, rumbling, lifting their heads high, clanking tusks together, intertwining their trunks.”

Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and another preeminent elephant researcher, once saw a particularly amazing example of elephant cooperation. One day the young and audacious Ebony, daughter of a matriarch named Echo, bounded right into the midst of a clan that was not her own. As a show of dominance, that clan kidnapped Ebony, keeping her captive with their trunks and legs. After failing to retrieve Ebony on their own, Echo and her eldest daughters retreated. A few minutes later they returned with all the members of their extended family, charged into the clan of kidnappers and rescued Ebony. “That took forethought, teamwork and problem-solving,” Moss says. “How did Echo convey that she needed them? It's a mystery to me, but it happened.”

In 2010 Joshua Plotnik of Mahidol University in Thailand and his colleagues tested elephant cooperation in a controlled study for the first time. At a Thai conservation center, they divided an outdoor elephant enclosure into two regions with a volleyball net. On one side stood pairs of Asian elephants. On the other side the researchers attached two bowls of corn to a table that slid back and forth on a frame of plastic pipes. They looped a hemp rope around the table so that when both ends of the rope were pulled simultaneously the table moved toward the elephants, pushing the food underneath the net. If a single elephant tried to pull the rope by him or herself, it would slip out and ruin any chance of getting the food. All the elephants quickly learned to cooperate and even to patiently wait for a partner if the scientists prevented both animals from reaching the rope at the same time. One mischievous young elephant outsmarted the rest. Instead of going through the hassle of tugging on one end of the rope, she simply stood on it and let her partner do all the hard work.

Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. Poole once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet. Another time, while driving through Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Poole saw a female elephant give birth to a stillborn baby. The mother guarded her dead calf for two days, trying over and over to revive its limp body. Realizing that the grieving mom had not had any sustenance this whole time, Poole drove near her with an offering of water. The elephant stretched her trunk inside the car and eagerly drank her fill. When she was done, she remained with Poole for a few moments, gently touching her chest.

When elephants encounter an elephant skeleton, they slow down, approach it cautiously, and caress the bones with their trunk and the bottoms of their sensitive padded feet. Elephants do not show the same interest in the remains of other species. In one experiment elephants spent twice as much time investigating an elephant skull as those of either a rhinoceros and buffalo and six times longer probing ivory than a piece of wood. Moss has witnessed elephants kicking dirt over skeletons and covering them with palm fronds.

Plotnik and renowned animal behavior expert Frans de Waal of Emory University recently teamed up to study elephant empathy. On a monthly basis between the spring of 2008 and 2009 they observed 26 Asian elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, looking for signs of what researchers call “consolation.” Many animals are capable “reconciliation”—making up after a tussle. Far fewer animals display true consolation: when a bystander goes out of his or her way to comfort the victim of a fight or an individual that is disturbed for some reason. On dozens of occasions Plotnik and de Waal saw elephants consoling one another. A perturbed elephant often perks up its ears and tail and squeals, roars or trumpets. Over the course of the study, many elephants behaved in this way, because of an altercation, because they were spooked by something—such as a helicopter or dog—or for an unknown cause. When other elephants recognized these signs of anxiety, they rushed to the upset animal’s side, chirping softly and stroking their fellow elephant’s head and genitals. Sometimes the elephants put their trunks in one another’s mouths—a sign of trust because doing so risks being bitten.

The aspect of elephant intelligence that is the trickiest to gauge—the one that has really challenged scientists to think like an elephant—is self-awareness. Scientists now have preliminary evidence that elephants are indeed self-aware, overturning previous findings. To determine whether an animal has a sense of self, researchers first place a mark on an animal’s body that it can identify only with the help of a mirror. Then they wait to see if the animal tries to get rid of the mark when it encounters its reflection. Doing so, the reasoning goes, means the animal understands when it is looking at itself rather than another animal. In the earliest studies on elephant self-awareness, researchers placed a one by 2.5–meter mirror outside the bars of an enclosure, angled in such a way that the animals could see only the upper thirds of their bodies. The elephants reacted to the reflection as they would to another elephant, raising their trunks in greeting. When the scientists dabbed the elephants’ faces with white cream, the animals failed to recognize that the marks were on their own bodies.

Written By: Ferris Jabr
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  1. The elephant was the creature I used when a child to think and understand how christianity was illogical. I could never work out why they thought we would be going to heaven but the elephants weren’t. If they were all gods creation wouldn’t he be happy to see the elephants too? I wasn’t ever a christian to have to reason out of but was of course fully immersed in their cookie culture.

    Even then, at age 6-10 (but who knows), I remember my follow up thought was always – but the other animals are all just as complex, incredible, wonderful and as worthy too. Now we find out they are even cleverer, perhaps cleverer than a theists? I wonder if they are capable of irrational thoughts too? If the root of irrational thoughts is the fear response to the unknown perhaps they do to some extent?

  2. I saw elephants in captivity that were given paint brushes and canvas by their handlers as kind of a project. The elephants drew stick figures of human beings. I pointed it out to one of the handlers and his eyes got wide as he told me he had never realized that before.

  3. Therein lies the problem…..than WE realise…we are annoyingly human centric….and should stop this approach and Realise that we under estimate almost everything – all the time….It is a particular flaw of humans to assume they are the centre of the world and work outwards from there….instead of seeing a long long pattern of us not realising things that are glaringly obvious – instead we have chosen to overlook what suited us with our humane superiority complex…we used to think Neanderthal was a dumb cave man….that says it all…..stop assuming that intelligence starts with us and should be measured from there…that’s the wrong approach…

  4. Yes… clearly all big-brained mammals have all the precursor emotions that the human specie has developed, but infinitely less deception in how they interact and live their lives. That they are intelligent and problem-solve should really not surprise anyone capable of observing them.
    It is always somewhat irrelevant to place any animal into a human-designed task to measure intelligence because it likely has no usefulness in their natural environment or their social interactions.
    Anyway, always like to read these articles because it just might result in more awareness of our inter-connectedness… and perhaps, better habitat preservation and treatment for these incredible creatures.
    Ivory poachers… in a word, suck.

  5. zoos

    Infuriating article recently, a u.s. zoo elephant charged at a keeper. Poor thing (elephant), had just lost its mate. “Who’s at fault?”. After mulling it over, the elephant was exonerated. Objection! There is nothing to mull over – the elephant was just doing what is natural.


    Don’t get me started! Last summer Russel Simmons posted on his site, a plea to not patronize a certain touring circus act. Allegations of cruelty and improper care. Kudos to RS, hope his post facilitated an effort to shut down said circus.

  6. I really loved this story just for its own sake. Fascinating stuff.

    Also serendipitous: My Daughter will be helping at an Elephant Sanctuary this summer.

    Many thanks.

  7. In reply to #7 by bluebird:

    I will never forgive Thomas Edison for what he did to Topsy. Cold-hearted SOB.

    Neither will I. An horrendous act and very difficult to watch.

  8. In reply to #7 by bluebird:

    I will never forgive Thomas Edison for what he did to Topsy. Cold-hearted SOB.

    What’s particularly sickening with this act is that it wasn’t done in the name of science or research. It was just a cruel publicity stunt against AC technology. Or in other words, he knew the elephant would suffer and that it would be a very gross scene. That was the whole point of the “experiment”. I was not one of those many cases of “we did not know any better at the time”. For all the good things Edison did, he was also in many ways completely ruthless.

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