11 April 2014

Elephant News

Welcome back. Enough of these posts about little critters--lizards, insects, snails, snakes–ok, the python was pretty big. Anyway, it’s time for BIG critters: elephants.
I mentioned elephant communication when I wrote about peacocks and infrasound (Bird Talk), but there’s been a mountain of research on behavior and intelligence. See what you think about these three recent studies.

Consoling Elephants

While reconciliation is quite common in the animal kingdom, consolation has only been shown with humans, great apes, canines and certain birds. Elephants have often been observed helping or seemingly reassuring other elephants, yet there had been no controlled investigation until the work from Emory University.

Asian elephants (multiple websites)
The researchers studied 26 Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at an elephant camp in Thailand. The elephants, ranging in age from approximately 3 to 60 years, were unrelated other than mother and juvenile pairs; adult males were excluded.

The elephants were monitored 1 to 2 weeks each month for about a year at specific periods each day, collecting data on distress behaviors, whatever the cause, and reactions of other elephants. If such occurrences were observed at other times, data were collected and controlled observation periods were scheduled.

The study found that the elephants engaged in significantly more vocalizations and unsolicited physical contacts following distress events than during control periods.

When an elephant exhibited distress by sticking out its ears, straightening its tail and roaring, trumpeting or making a low rumble, bystander elephants came quickly, chirping and stroking the distressed elephant’s head and genitals and sometimes putting their trunks in one another’s mouths or encircling the elephant. Bystander elephants also affiliated with each other, emulating the behavior and emotional state of the distressed elephant. Overall, the response behavior seemed best classified as consoling.

Testing Elephant Intelligence

Representing both the University of Cambridge and Think Elephants International, the first author of the consoling publication also led an effort on assessing elephant intelligence. This study tested seven Asian elephants, giving them the choice between two closed buckets: one filled with sunflower seeds, the other empty.

When they gave the elephants an auditory clue, shaking a closed bucket, the elephants chose no better than chance. When they gave the elephants an olfactory clue, allowing the elephants to smell one of the buckets, the elephants scored well. If they had smelled the empty bucket, they always rejected that bucket and chose the other.

The findings emphasize the importance of considering the animal’s abilities and behaviors for cognitive testing. They also provide insight for improving the farmers’ defense of crops from elephant incursions.

Elephants Categorize Voices

Hold onto your hats with this one. Investigators from the UK’s Sussex University and Kenya’s Amboseli Trust for Elephants found that elephants possess an advanced cognitive skill that only humans have demonstrated.

The researchers played recordings of human voices to family groups of free-ranging African elephants (Loxodonta africana). The recordings were by Maasai men, who sometimes kill elephants, and Kamba men, who are less of a threat, saying the same phrase in their two languages. The elephants reacted much more defensively to the Maasai voices, huddling together and sniffing the air.

When the researchers compared recordings of Maasai men with those of Maasai women and boys, the results were similar. Women and boys generally pose little threat, and the elephants reacted less to their voices than to the men’s voices.

Going further, the researchers modified the Maasai voices, making the female voices sound male and the male voices sound female. Though the change would fool most humans, it did not affect the elephants’ response.

Conditioned by memory, the elephants made subtle distinctions between language and voice characteristics to identify the most threatening individuals based on ethnicity, gender and age.

Wrap Up

Has it really taken so long to learn little besides how to train animals that we lived alongside? Not being familiar with the literature on elephants, I don’t know if the research is adding to, filling gaps in or catching up with what people already know. In any event, I think the work is fascinating and hope you agree. Thanks for stopping by.


- Study of elephants consoling others in distress in journal PeerJ: peerj.com/articles/278/
- PeerJ interview with study’s first author, who is also affiliated with Thailand’s Mahidol University and the UK’s Cambridge University, and founder of Think Elephants Int’l.: blog.peerj.com/post/77061312346/interview-with-an-author-joshua-plotnik
-Articles on study on National Geographic and Science Magazine websites:

-Study of elephant intelligence in Animal Behaviour journal:
-National Geographic article on study:

-Study of elephants categorizing voices in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/03/05/1321543111.abstract?sid=123a86f6-9045-44f5-8bc9-3e24bea2a10f
-Associated Press and Reuters articles on study:

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