Be it the African Savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), the African forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) or the Asian elephants (Elephas Maximus), they have in general displayed intelligent behaviour in many instances.
In an article published by The Nature Institute, intelligence was defined to be “the capacity to meet new and unforeseen situations by rapid and effective adjustment of behaviour” (Holdrege, 2001). Basically, from many anecdotal evidence and several experiments involving elephants, these giant land animals have shown us that they have the flexibility to adapt to new situations and the capacity to learn new tricks. If you need some visual proof, check out this video of Elephants revealing new trunk tricks caught on camera by a BBC team.
It was after viewing the video, that I became extremely curious about why elephants are so intelligent. In the article, Elephantine Intelligence, Holdrege explains the anatomy of the elephant’s brain which is the largest of all land animals, weighing on average of between nine and twelve pounds. But it is not just the massive size of the brain that makes the elephant intelligent; it is mainly related to the extensive convolution of the brain and the enlarged olfactory lobe, cerebellum and temporal lobe of the cerebrum (Holdrege, 2001). If you were already familiar with other intelligent capabilities of the elephant, such as its ability to use tools to achieve many goals, did you notice that the main organ through which the elephant expresses its intelligence is its trunk?
It is remarkable how elephants use their trunks to perform simple yet amazing feats like picking up a stick to scratch itself in places its trunk cannot reach, deliberately throwing sticks and stones at each other during fights or play (Holdrege, 2001) and modifying branches to use it as a switch to protect themselves against flies (Hart, 2008), and the list goes on. Other impressive talents of elephants include its long-term, extensive memory, its ability to empathize and recognise itself in mirrors. In fact, this ability to show self-awareness has thus far been documented to be found only in humans, great apes and bottlenose dolphins (BBC News, 2006). Recently, they have been noted to be able to paint as well. Just take a look at the picture below!
Impressive, isn’t it? Yet, the authors of the journal article ‘Large Brains and Cognition: Where do elephants fit in?’ do not seem to agree. They described the performance of elephants in the feats of tool use, tests of insight behaviour and visual discrimination learning to be ‘unimpressive’ compared to chimpanzees or humans (Hart, 2008). Nevertheless, the article acknowledged elephants’ ability to empathize as being unique to the elephant species, excluding humans.
BBC News. (2009, March 10). Elephants reveal new trunk tricks. Retrieved April 3, 2010, from Science and Environment: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7932769.stm
BBC News. (2006, October, 31). Elephants’ Jumbo mirror ability. Retrieved April 3, 2010, from Science and Nature: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6100430.stm?lsm
Hart,Benjamin L., Hart, Lynette A. & Pinter-Wollman, Noa. (2008). Large Brains and Cognition: Where do elephants fit in? Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews , 32 (1), 86-98. Retrieved April 4, 2010, from Science Direct: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science
Holdrege, C. (2001, Spring). Elephantine Intelligence. In Context (5), pp. 10-13. Retrieved April 3, 2010, from The Nature Institute: http://www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic5/elephant.htm
Image from: http://www.humanflowerproject.com/index.php/weblog/comments/elephant_atelier/