Just how wise is a wise elephant?

Just how wise is a wise elephant?


When I tell people I study Zoology at University there are 2 common responses:

1)      Is that the study of how to be a zookeeper?

2)      What is your favourite animal?

Now we all know Zoology is not the study of how to be a zookeeper, but the second question is a little difficult. I couldn’t put my finger on one favourite animal, but I think Elephants are right up there. For those of you who have read my bio you will be aware I will be working in the elephant section at a local zoo this summer. As such, every elephant related soft toy, charm, book and most importantly news article finds its way to my desk from various friends and family. It is from one of these news articles that I became aware of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants (ATE).

The ATE is a study of 2500 African elephants over the last 35 years. Each elephant’s ancestry is catalogued, individually tracked and their behaviour observed and recorded. The ATE is founded by Cynthia Moss, who has almost been working with elephants for 40 years. The project is based in southern Kenya, near the border to Tanzania. Their focus is on the behaviour of these animals and to try and understand their intelligence and complex lives.


Findings from the ATE

After 35 years of studying the ATE have a huge database of information on the behaviour of their elephants. The current 1500 elephants at the Amboseli National Park are divided into separate family units comprised of related females and their offspring. Within each family unit there are also bond groups, clans and sub populations.

While everyone is brought up knowing that elephants are “wise” animals, the ATE has reported behaviour and actions that I for one would not have expected. For example they describe a female adult wincing as she watched a young calf extending their trunk to an electric fence. Other behaviour included using tree branches as fly swats, entwining trunks and bumping shoulders as a greeting, waggling heads and prodding each other as a playful incentive, and even females opening their eyes wider to attract potential suitors. The elephants at the ATE also show parental care by dragging stuck calves out of the mud, and walking with calves slower than the family unit, to ensure they don’t get lost. Another behaviour demonstrated has long been known in elephant research – grieving over their dead. Elephants seem to have the ability to distinguish an elephant carcass from any other animal carcass.

Some scientists suggest elephants are as capable as primates in co-operating and their short term memory is in some cases superior to that of humans. Iain Douglas – Hamilton of Save the Elephants, Samburu Nature Reserve Kenya, supports the work of Moss and the ATE, and believes their intelligence in day to day situations is an example of convergent evolution. Fritz Vollrath of Oxford University animal department is not so convinced. He argues that despite the obvious evidence for empathy, intelligence and compassion, is it really the same as our own? It is common for humans to assign human-like behaviour to animals, and Vollrath feels that this is the case in this situation.


Future Research

Elephants have a well developed sense of smell, and odour is an important part of their lives, but to what extent and do we really know the full purpose it serves? I would be the first to assume that the way they use scent is the same as the way another animal, say a dog uses scent. But is that really the case? One of the main reasons this has not been fully researched to the same extent as the ATE project is because it is much more difficult to record and analyse an odour, compared to recording and analysing a behavioural action. Another area the ATE are keen to learn more about is the way empathy effects an elephant’s life, how important it is, and why it developed at all.


Final Thoughts

I started at the beginning of this post explaining that elephants were one of my favourite animals. The current conservation status of the African (bush) elephant is threatened, meaning conservation work needs to be done to try and stop the species from becoming extinct. However, funding is required for this work and a viable source of income is the general public (via charitable donations). Perhaps the fact that elephants display behaviour similar to that of humans will add to the empathy felt for them by our own species. In theory, more empathy should mean more donations; therefore more work can be carried out trying to stop such an iconic animal from facing extinction.


Further Reading

Leadership in Elephants: the adaptive value of age (McComb, K. et al, 2011. Proceedings of the Royal Society B)

The Amboseli Elephants: A Long-term Perspective on a Long-lived Mammal (Moss, C. 2011. University of Chicago Press)

Elephant Expert: Busting myths of Nature’s masterpiece (Else, L. 2011. New Scientist)

Behaviour demonstrated over the 35 year study. Source: The Amboseli Elephant