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File:Ele-brain.png
Human, dolphin and elephant brains up to scale. (1)-cerebrum (1a)-temporal lobe and (2)-cerebellum

Elephants are among the world's most intelligent animals. With a mass just over 5kg, elephant brains are larger than those of any other land animal, and although the largest whales have body masses twentyfold those of a typical elephant, whale brains are barely twice the mass of an elephant's brain. A wide variety of behaviors, including those associated with grief, learning, allomothering, mimicry, art, play, a sense of humor, altruism, use of tools, compassion, self-awareness, memory and possibly language[1] all point to a highly intelligent species that are thought to be equal with cetaceans[2][3] and primates[4][5].

Aristotle once said that elephants were “The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind”[6].

Brain structure

The elephant (both Asian and African) has a very large and highly convoluted neocortex, a trait also shared by humans, apes and certain dolphin species. Scientists see this as a sign of complex intelligence. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the Echidna who also have a highly developed brain[7]. The elephants brain exhibits a gyral pattern more complex and with more numerous convolutes/brain folds than that of humans, primates and carnivores, but less complex than cetaceans[8].

Elephants also have a very thick cortex and even though the cell density is lower than that found in humans, it is estimated to have as many neurons[8]. Elephants are believed to rank equal with dolphins in terms of problem solving abilities and many scientists now rank elephant intelligence to be on par with dolphins and whales[9].

Elephants, like humans and a few other animal species (such as Orca), must learn behavior as they grow up. They are not born with the instincts of how to survive[10].

Elephants have a very long period in their lives for learning. One comparative way to try to gauge intelligence is to compare brain size at birth to the fully developed adult brain. This indicates how much learning a species accumulates while young. The majority of mammals are born with a brain close to 90%[10] of the adult weight. Humans are born with 28%[10] of the adult weight, bottlenose dolphins with 42.5%,[11] chimpanzees 54%,[10] and elephants 35%.[12] The learning period for an elephant is around ten years. This indicates that elephants have the highest amount of learning to undergo next to humans and behavior is not mere instinct but must be taught throughout life. It should be noted that instinct is quite different from learned intelligence. Parents will teach their young how to feed, use tools and learn their place in highly complex elephant society. The cerebrum temporal lobes, which functions as storage of memory are much larger than that of a human[10].

Asian elephants have the greatest volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing of all existing land animals. Elephants have a volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing that exceeds that of any primate species and extensive studies place elephants in the category of great apes in terms of cognitive abilities for tool use and tool making[4].

Elephants also have a very large and highly convoluted hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that is much bigger than that of any human, primate or cetacean[13]. The hippocampus of an elephant takes up about 0.7% of the central structures of the brain, comparable to 0.5% for humans and with 0.1% in Risso dolphins and 0.05% in the bottlenose dolphin[14]. The hippocampus is linked to processing emotion and memory. This is thought to possibly be why elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [15][16].

Elephant society

The elephant has one of the most closely knit societies of any living species. Elephant families can only be separated by death or capture. Cynthia Moss, an elephant researcher, recalls an event involving a family of African elephants. Two members of the family were shot by poachers, who were subsequently chased off by the remaining elephants. Although one of the elephants died, the other, named Tina, remained standing but with knees beginning to give way. Two family members, Trista and Teresia (Tina’s mother) walked to either side of Tina and leaned in to hold her up. Alas, Tina was so weak she fell to the ground and died. However, Trista and Teresia did not give up but continually tried to lift her. They managed to get Tina into a sitting position, but her body was lifeless and fell to the ground again. As the other elephant family members became more intensely involved in the aid, they tried to put grass into Tina’s mouth. Teresia then put her tusks beneath Tina’s head and front quarters and proceeded to lift her. As she did so, her right tusk broke completely off, right up to the lip and nerve cavity. The elephants gave up trying to lift Tina but didn’t leave her; instead, they began to bury her in a shallow grave and throw leaves over her body. They stood over Tina for the night, and then began to leave in the morning. The last to leave was Teresia[17].

Because elephants are so closely knit and highly matriarchal, a family can be devastated by the death of another (especially a matriarch) and some groups never recover their organization. Cynthia Moss has observed a mother, after the death of her calf, walk sluggishly at the back of a family for many days[17].

Edward Topsell stated in his publication, The History of Four-Footed Beasts in 1658 that "There is no creature among all the Beasts of the world which hath so great and ample demonstration of the power and wisdom of almighty God as the elephant[18]."

Elephant altruism

Elephants are thought to be highly altruistic animals that will even aid other species, including humans, in distress. In India, an elephant was helping locals lift logs by following a truck and placing the logs in pre-dug holes upon instruction from the mahout (elephant trainer). At a certain hole, the elephant refused to lower the log. The mahout came to investigate the hold up and noticed a dog sleeping in the hole. The elephant only lowered the log when the dog was gone[19].

Cynthia Moss has often seen elephants going out of their way to avoid hurting or killing a human, even when it was difficult for them (such as having to walk backwards to avoid a person).

Joyce Poole documented an encounter told to her by Colin Francombe on Kuki Gallman’s Laikipia Ranch. A ranch herder was out on his own with camels when he came across a family of elephants. The matriarch charged at him and knocked him over with her trunk, breaking one of his legs. In the evening, when he didn’t return, a search party was sent in a truck to find him . When the party discovered him, he was being guarded by an elephant. The animal charged the truck, so they shot over her and scared her away. The herdsman later told them that when he couldn’t stand up, the elephant used her trunk to lift him under the shade of a tree. She guarded him for the day and would gently touch him with her trunk[10].

Self medication

Further information: Zoopharmacognosy

Elephants in Africa will self-medicate by chewing on the leaves of a tree from the Boraginaceae family, which induces labor. Kenyans also use this tree for the same purpose[20].

Death ritual

Elephants are the only other species other than humans and neanderthals[21] known to have a ritual around death. They show a keen interest in the bones of their own kind (even unrelated elephants that have died long ago). They are often seen gently investigating the bones with their trunks and feet, and remaining very quiet. Sometimes elephants that are completely unrelated to the deceased will still visit their graves.[6] When an elephant is hurt, other elephants (also even if they are unrelated) will aid them.[10]

Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in her book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony Martin-Hall, a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa for over 8 years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf were all gently touching her body with their trunks and tried to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next 2 days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.[22] Occurrences of elephants behaving this way around human beings are common through Africa. On many occasions, they have buried dead or sleeping humans or aided them when they were hurt.[10] Meredith also recalls an event told to her by George Adamson, a Kenyan Game Warden regarding an old Turkana woman who fell asleep under a tree after losing her way home. When she woke up, there was an elephant standing over her, gently touching her. She kept very still because she was very frightened. As other elephants arrived, they began to scream loudly and buried her under branches. She was found the next morning by the local herdsmen, unharmed.[22]

George Adamson also recalls when he shot a Bull elephant from a herd that kept breaking into the Government gardens of Northern Kenya. George gave the elephant’s meat to local Turkana Tribesmen and then dragged the rest of the carcass half a mile away. That night, the other elephants found the body and took the shoulder blade and leg bone and returned the bones to the exact spot the elephant was killed.[23] Scientists often argue the extent that elephants feel emotion. A large variety of animals display what appears to be ‘sorrow’ through body language, posture, movement and actions but seeing elephants standing over a body, burying them, refusing to leave and their trunks being observed hanging limp certainly seems evidence that perhaps much deeper and complex emotions are involved.[23]

Play

Joyce Poole on many occasions has observed wild African elephants at play. They apparently do things for their own and others' entertainment. Elephants have been seen sucking up water, holding their trunk high in the air, and then spraying the water like a fountain[10].

Mimicry

Recent studies have shown that elephants can also mimic sounds they hear. The discovery was found when Mlaika, an orphaned elephant, would copy the sound of trucks passing by. So far, the only other animals that are thought to mimic sounds are whales, dolphins, bats, primates and birds[24]. Calimero, an African elephant who was 23 years old also exhibited a unique form of mimicry. He was in a Swiss zoo with some Asian elephants. Compared with African elephants, Asian elephants use chirps that are different from African elephants' deep rumbling noises. Calimero also began to chirp and not make the deep calls like his species normally would [25]. Kosik, an Indian elephant at Everland Amusement Park, South Korea surprised trainers when they thought there was a person in his enclosure but it was actually Kosik imitating Jong Gap Kim, his trainer. Kosik can make sounds imitating up to eight Korean words, including "sit", "no", "yes" and "lie down". His mimicry is remarkably human-sounding. Kosik produces humanlike sounds by putting his trunk in his mouth and then shaking it while breathing out, similar to how people whistle with their fingers[26]. Elephants use contact calls to stay in touch with one another when they are out of one another’s sight. Female elephants are able to remember and distinguish the contact calls of female family and bond group members from those of females outside of their extended family network. They can also distinguish between the calls of family units depending upon how frequently they came across them[27].

Tool use

Further information: Tool use by animals

Elephants show a remarkable ability to use tools, despite having no hands. Instead, they use their trunk like an arm. Elephants have been observed digging holes to drink water and then ripping bark from a tree, chewing it into the shape of a ball, filling in the hole and covering over it with sand to avoid evaporation. The elephant later went back to this spot for a drink. They also often use branches to swat flies or scratch themselves[28]. Elephants have also been known to drop very large rocks onto an electric fence to either ruin the fence or cut off the electricity[10].

Art

Like several other species, elephants are able to produce abstract art using their trunks to hold brushes. Possibly unique is their ability to draw realistic images. An example of this was shown in the TV program 'Extraordinary Animals', where elephants at a camp in Thailand were able to draw a ' self portrait' with flower - see link for the case of 'Hong': [1]. Although the images are drawn by the elephants, there is always a human person assisting and guiding the movement. From those presentations it cannot be definitely evaluated, whether the elephants are conscious about the shape of their drawings or not.

This extraordinary video documentation of an elephant painting a picture of an elephant - possibly indicating self-awareness - has become widespread on internet news and video websites.[29] The quality of the painting is extremely high, leading many astonished viewers to doubt the video's authenticity. The website snopes.com, which specializes in debunking urban legends, lists the video as "true", in that the elephant produced the brush strokes, but notes that the similarity of the produced paintings is indicative of a learned sequence of strokes rather than a creative effort on the part of the elephant.[30]

Problem solving ability

Elephants are able to spend a lot of time working on problems. They are able to radically change their behavior to face a new challenge, a hallmark of complex intelligence. In the 1970s at Marine World Africa, USA, there lived an Asian elephant named Bandula. Bandula worked out how to break open or unlock several of the pieces of equipment used to keep the shackles on her feet secure. The most complex device was a 'brommel hook', a device that will close when two opposite points are slid together. Bandula used to fiddle with the hook until it slid apart when it was aligned. Once she had freed herself, she would help the other elephants escape also[20]. In Bandula’s case and certainly with other captive elephants, there was an element of 'deception' involved during escapes, such as the animals looking around making sure no one was watching[20].

In another case, a female elephant worked out how she could unscrew iron rods with an eye hole that were an inch thick. She used her trunk to create leverage and then untwist the bolt[20].

Ruby, an Asian elephant at Phoenix Zoo would often ‘eavesdrop’ onto conversations keepers would have talking about her. When she heard the word “paint”, she became very excitable. The colours she favoured were green, yellow, blue and red. On one particular day, there was a fire truck that came and parked outside her enclosure where a man had just had a heart attack. The lights on the truck were flashing red, white and yellow. When Ruby painted later on in the day, she chose those colours. She also showed a preference for particular colours that the keepers wore[20].

Harry Peachey, an elephant trainer, developed a cooperative relationship with an elephant named Koko. Koko would help out the keepers, “prompting" the keepers to encourage him with various commands and words that Koko would learn. Peachey stated that elephants are almost 'predisposed' to cooperate and work with humans as long as they are treated with respect and sensitivity. Koko worked out when his keepers needed a bit of ‘elephant help’ when they were transferring the females of the group to another zoo. When the keepers wanted to transfer a female, usually they would say her name, followed by the word 'transfer' (e.g. “Connie transfer"). Koko soon figured out what this meant. If the keepers asked an elephant to transfer and they didn’t budge, they would say “Koko, give me a hand”. When he heard this, Koko would help. Peachey firmly believes that after 27 years of working with elephants, they can understand semantics/syntax of some of the words they hear. This is something thought to be very rare in the animal kingdom[20].

Self awareness

Asian Elephants have joined a small group of animals, including great apes and Bottlenose dolphins, that exhibit self awareness. The study was conducted with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) using elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Although many animals will respond to a mirror, very few show any evidence that they recognize it is in fact themselves in the mirror reflection.

The Asian elephants in the study also displayed this type of behavior when standing in front of a 2.5m-by-2.5m mirror - they inspected the rear and brought food close to the mirror for consumption.

Absolute evidence of elephant self awareness was shown when "Happy" repeatedly touched a painted "X" on her head with her trunk, a mark which could only be seen in the mirror. Happy ignored another mark made with colourless paint that was also on her forehead to ensure she was not merely reacting to a smell or feeling.

Frans De Waal, who ran the study stated, "These parallels between humans and elephants suggest a convergent cognitive evolution possibly related to complex sociality and cooperation."[31]

Joyce Poole , of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, Kenya, has demonstrated vocal learning and imitation in elephant of sounds made by each other and in the environment. She is beginning to research whether sounds made by elephants have dialects, a trait that is rare in the animal kingdom.[24]

References

  1. includeonly>Parsell, D.L.. "In Africa, Decoding the "Language" of Elephants", National Geographic News, 2003-02-21. Retrieved on 2007-10-30.
  2. (1999). What Makes Dolphins So Smart?. The Ultimate Guide: Dolphins. URL accessed on 2007-10-30.
  3. Mind, memory and feelings. Friends Of The Elephant. URL accessed on 2007-12-20.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hart, B.L., L.A. Hart, M. McCoy, C.R. Sarath (November 2001). Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching. Animal Behaviour 62 (5): 839–847.
  5. includeonly>Scott, David. "Elephants Really Don't Forget", Daily Express, 2007-10-19. Retrieved on 2007-10-30.
  6. 6.0 6.1 O'Connell, Caitlin (2007). The Elephant's Secret Sense: The Hidden Lives of the Wild Herds of Africa, 174, 184, New York City: Simon & Schuster.
  7. Abbie, A.A. (October 30 1934). The Brain-Stem and Cerebellum of Echidna aculeata. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 224 (509): 1–74.
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  15. Bekoff, Mark, "Do Elephants Cry?: The science is conclusive: animals are emotional beings", Emagazine, http://www.emagazine.com/view/?3702 
  16. Siebert, Charles (October 6 2006), "An Elephant Crack Up?", The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/08/magazine/08elephant.html?pagewanted=9&_r=1 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Moss, Cynthia (2001). Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
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  19. Holdrege, Craig (Spring 2001). Elephantine Intelligence. In Context (5).
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 20.4 20.5 Linden, Eugene (2002). The Octopus and the Orangutan: More Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity, 16-17, 104-105, 191, New York City: Plume.
  21. R. S. Solecki (1975). "Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal flower burial in northern Iraq". [[Science (journal)|]] 190 (28): 880. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Meredith, Martin (2004). Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa, 184-186, Canada: PublicAffairs.
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