Elephants are among some of the smartest creatures on the planet. They have the ability to show empathy, identify languages, live in co-operative family structures, and can even paint. Though many people have heard in the past that elephants are smart, here are six things that prove it, and how complex these magnificent creatures truly are.
1. Elephants mourn their dead.
Elephants may understand death differently than humans, but research has shown that they recognize the passing of one of their own. Elephants’ reactions include caressing skeletal remains of a deceased member with their trunks and standing by the deceased for hours at a time. Some scientists have witnessed elephants attempting to bury another elephant’s body, and even shed tears over a clan member’s passing.
2. Elephants can use tools.
These gentle giants have long been known to use sticks to scratch more inaccessible body parts and fashion fly swatters from branches or grass. They can dig water holes and plug them up for later use. But in 2010 researchers were amazed by 7-year-old Kandula when he rolled over a large plastic block and used it as a stepping stool to reach fruit with his trunk. In Thailand of the same year an elephant conservatory amazed onlookers when it showcased a number of them painting self portraits, holding their paintbrushes with their trunks.
3. Elephants show empathy.
A 2014 study conducted by the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Georgia observed Asian elephants comforting one another in times of distress; they stroked each other with their trunks and made chirping sounds. Scientists stated the reaction was “best classified with similar responses (shown) by apes.” These gentle giants even suffer long-term emotional damage after traumatic events, showing basic signs of post traumatic stress disorder.
4. Elephants live co-operative family lives.
Elephant families are close for life, a bond that not even some humans can boast. Mothers and their offspring remain in lifelong clans, caring for the group calves and protecting them from threats like lions and poachers. Clan members are very communicative, using various chirping sounds, loud trumpet blares and rumbles undetectable to human hearing, as well as body language like nudges, kicks, and tilts of the head. They even deliberate, make group decisions, and congratulate achievements within their family. Clanking their tusks together and intertwining their trunks are one of the more common festivity practices.
5. Elephants can distinguish languages and different voices.
A recent 2014 Kenyan study found that these gentle giants can distinguish hostile humans from peaceful ones by listening to voice recordings. These African elephants were also not only able to tell language apart, but distinguish if a voice was male or female, and child or adult. Researcher Cynthia Moss believes elephants use language and voice to help assess whether a particular person poses a threat and will defend or ignore the situation. The Massai tribe of Kenya, who have killed many calves, produced a defensive response in the elephants, especially if the voice was of an adult male. Another local tribe, the Kamba, who have a good relationship with local elephants, produced a much milder reaction. They can even mimic human voices; in 2012 Asian elephant Koshik said five words in Korean! Scientists attributed this as a form of bonding with his trainer.
6. Elephants have long memories.
The age-old urban legend is anything but–an elephant does not forget! They can remember long watering hole routes over long spans of time, a necessary evolutionary skill that has helped elephants in dry desert climates survive. They can recognize companions after long periods of separation; in 1999 two elephants remembered each other after twenty years apart. In 2011 Dr. Shermin de Silva stated that “elephants are able to track one another over large distances by calling to each other and using their sense of smell.” Older elephants have proven that they remember how to react to dangerous situations; when a lion’s roar was played over a loudspeaker the clan matriarchs formed a defense around their family.
There are many more examples and an abundance of research currently being conducted on these amazing animals and their high intelligence level. These are just six things that prove how truly smart, complex and human-like elephants are.
By Danielle Kral
Photo by Finn Frode – Flickr License