How Did The Elephants Know?
I received from a friend an extract from this article describing elephants traveling an estimated 12 hours to pay respects to Lawrence Anthony, an elephant rescuer. Although the elephants had not visited the man’s home in over a year, the article claimed that they somehow knew he had just died. Elephants are known to pay such respects to members of their herd but I was not convinced they would do so for a human somehow knowing when and where Lawrence died. As is my usual practice when I encounter surprising claims, I fact-checked the story. Two fact-checking sites listed the story as “undetermined” and a third listed it as “true”. True or not, I wondered if elephants have abilities that could explain the remarkable story.
Scientists have demonstrated that elephants have approximately the intelligence of a two-year-old human, similar to Kanzi, a bonobo I wrote about in an earlier blog post. Four intelligence tests illustrate their ability to solve diverse problems.
Elephants solve problems normally beyond a human under two years of age. For example, elephants were trained to pick up and pass a stick to a handler. When the stick was attached to a mat so the elephant had to step on the mat to pick up the stick but step off the mat to complete the task. The elephants solved the problem 87% of the time. Only 6% of the time did a control group of elephants step off the mat when it was not attached to the mat. Children under two years of age typically did not pass the test.
A number of animals have been documented to recognize themselves in the mirror. To verify self-recognition, a mark that can only be seen in the mirror is surreptitiously placed on the subject. If the subject explores, touches or tries to remove the mark,, self-recognition is presumed to be confirmed. 65% of humans between 20 and 24 months pass the mark test. Watch this five minute video. Near the end an elephant passes the mark test.
|Cooperative Problem Solving|
This enterprising elephant seemed to immediately see how a tire would allow it to enjoy food that was just beyond reach. This short video captures an insightful strategy. The same behavior has been observed by elephants using balls and even stacking blocks for the same purpose.
Elephants make and use tools. They fabricate fly swatters out of the foliage, They carefully select sticks to scratch themselves, and they have been seen chewing bark to form a ball to prevent evaporation from a watering hole by plugging it.
Elephants use their finely tuned senses to communicate in ways far beyond human capabilities. Elephants communicate among the members of their herd in their own language using smell, sound, body language, and touch.
Humans can hear frequencies as low as 20 Hz. Elephants hear infrasonic frequencies down to 5 Hz (I personally can't hear sounds below 120 Hz); try using headphones with this hearing test and see how low you can go. Low frequencies are not reflected or absorbed as easily as higher frequencies, thus elephants can communicate over long distances. Elephants’ ears capture vibrations in the air.
But unlike humans, elephants' noses (trunks) also have sound vibration receptors. At the tip of their trunk Meissner’s corpuscles pick up very low frequencies and Pacinian corpuscles detect slightly higher frequencies. Surprisingly, elephants’ feet also have Pacinian corpuscles that are tuned to detect seismic vibrations. Seismic vibrations from stomping a human foot travel about ⅔ of a mile. An elephant stomp can send seismic vibrations about 20 miles. Researchers observe elephants placing their trunks flat on the ground when the herd has become still to detect unusual or unexpected activity. They speculate that the trunk is being used as an ear to the ground but much research remains to fully understand the behavior. Using the above hearing test, put your fingertips near the speaker or on the keypad to feel the vibrations much the way elephants feel seismic sound (though elephants would feel it at astoundingly low frequencies, well below those a human can detect).
|Communicating With Touch|
There is little scientific research focused on elephant emotions; most of the information is anecdotal and therefore invites accusations of anthropomorphism. Having explored what I could find in general and scholarly literature, I hold the personal view that elephants indeed do have deeper and more diverse emotions than most (or all) other social non-human animals. What is known that may partially explain why elephants have more emotional capacity than other non-human animals is they have a more developed hippocampus which is responsible for both emotion and memory.
Elephants are well known to rescue and console other elephants (especially the young) but they are documented to occasionally rescue members of other species including dogs, Kudu, buffalo, humans, and a baby rhinoceros stuck in the mud.
Elephants seem to have empathy and compassion not unlike humans. For example, groups of elephants are observed walking unnaturally slow to accommodate an injured member of the herd and to accommodate a mother elephant carrying her dead calf.
|Rescuing a Calf|
Recent research associates temporal gland secretions (TGS) flowing from between African elephant’s ears and eyes appear to be psychological markers, particularly the emotion of joy in females and hyper-sexuality in males. For example, a group of reuniting females will excitedly run towards each other displaying streams of TGS which has been anecdotally associated with joy.
Most people are familiar with the displays of love and protection mother elephants lavish on their calves, and mourning over deceased elephants. One researcher noted a family of African elephants surrounding a dying matriarch. The family stood around her and tried to get her up with their tusks and put food in her mouth. When the rest of the herd finally moved on, one female and one calf stayed with her, touching her with their feet.
Rage, stress and terror are unmistakable emotions seen in both adult and young elephants. Elephant calves show clear signs of PTSD after witnessing a member of the herd experience severe trauma.
Olfactory and Tactile Abilities
|Fine Motor Control|
An elephant’s sense of smell can be as much as four times that of a bloodhound (keep in mind that a bloodhound can smell a human scent trail 130 miles long and nearly two weeks old). Elephants have 2000 genes dedicated to smell alone, compared to 400 genes in humans, and can smell water 12 miles away. As described above, elephants avoid people of the tribe of Maasai people in Africa who are hostile to elephants. Scientists questioned whether the Masai were detected by the sight of their characteristic red garments (elephants cannot see red), or by smell. They were immediately repelled by red cloth freshly worn by Masai but lingered near the same cloth freshly laundered. This and other experiments suggest that smell may be the most an elephant's most important sense.
|Elephants Reinforcing Bonds|
This blog post was motivated by the article describing two herds of elephants reportedly paying their respects to the deceased Lawrence Anthony so it is natural to question if elephants are capable of extrasensory perception (ESP). I distinguish between infra-sensory perception (information gained through the senses outside the range of human abilities) and extrasensory perception, information not gained through the use of the senses.
|Science Uncovering Elephants' Secrets|
Postscript on Elephant Conservation
The African elephant population has decreased from 1,300,000 in 1979 to 400,000 today. Asia has only about 50,000 elephants spanning 13 countries. Poaching, loss of natural habitat, and competition with humans for land and food sources are the primary causes of the declining population. In addition to the ivory trade, Myanmar, and possibly Cambodia and Thailand, are experiencing an increase in skin poaching; elephant skin is used in Chinese medicine and beaded into wearable ornaments that are worn by people who believe they have magical properties beneficial to the skin.
Paradoxically, elephant populations in isolated areas of Africa are growing too quickly. For example, the Madikwe reserve, founded in 1991 with a population of 200 elephants, has experienced a population explosion reaching 1,200 today. Rather than incur the enormous expense of relocating elephants to reduce stress on resources, organizations like the African branch of Humane Society International are successfully experimenting with birth control.
Public support and awareness of the plight of elephants give me hope that we can manage to ensure their survival. If conservation measures are successful, we will learn much more about the astounding abilities of these magnificent creatures. I have no doubt that elephants have many more secrets to be discovered.