How Did The Elephants Know?

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.


An elephant has a brain containing three times more neurons than a human. So why are humans so much smarter than elephants? The answer lies in the distribution of neurons and the functions they perform. It is hypothesized that humans are smarter because we have three times more neurons than elephants in our cerebral cortex even though the mass of the elephant cerebral cortex is much greater than is ours. In addition, elephants devote a lot more brain power to managing their muscles compared to humans. For example, humans have about 700 muscles to control throughout the body; elephants have 40,000 muscles divided into 150,000 units in their trunk alone. Elephants have much more sensitive senses of smell and hearing than we. Nevertheless, elephants are on the list of the smartest mammals on earth.

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
Elephants cooperate with each other to perform tasks. In one experiment a rope was loosely looped around a sliding table. If one end of the rope was pulled, it was simply pulled loose from the table. If two elephants cooperated to simultaneously pull each end of the rope, the table would move to allow the pair to reach a food treat. As the testing progressed, the researchers were surprised when two elephants solved the problem in a way that was not anticipated. One elephant simply stood on one end of the rope and let its partner do all the work. Watch both strategies in this video.

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.

Seismic Communication

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).

Trumpeting Elephants
Elephants communicate with 70 distinct vocal sounds and an estimated 160 non-vocal gestures, expressions, and other signals. They use their unique language to alert members of the herd to danger, to coordinate movements in search of food and water, to seduce members of the opposite sex, to organize defensive group activities, and other socially useful behaviors. A trumpeting elephant is a sign of distress in an adult or a temper tantrum in an infant. One elephant can identify as many as 100 individuals from the distinct sound of their individual voices.

Communicating With Touch
Elephants communicate by touching one another. Members of a herd are in constant touch with one another showing affection, consoling, greeting, They lightly touch one another with their trunks as they pass in the wild. Social bonds are strengthened by tactile communications. Ears, tusks, tails and the whole body are used for special communications. Body language plays an important role in communication. A swishing tail indicates happiness or a calm state; a stiff tail indicates anxiety or aggression. Tails coupled with eyes are important cues to elephant handlers; one can relax if an elephant swishes its tail with lazy eyes, but beware if the elephant has a stiff tail and wide open adrenaline-fueled eyes.


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
Elephants cooperate and employ their exceptional intelligence to protect calves. ABC news recorded a calf overcome by swiftly moving water which was rescued by a group of adult members of the herd blocking the current to allow the calf to reach the shore.

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.


Elephants’ memories are legendary. They recognize friends after being separated for decades. This seven-minute video shows Jenny and Shirley as they meet after being apart for 20 years. The matriarch of a herd can lead others to water holes separated by long times and distances. A female elephant has been documented to remember up to 30 other females by their urine scent even after being apart for years (urine trails act as markers to help a lagging elephant know exactly where another member of the herd has traveled). And they remember where a relative died long ago and will gently touch their tusks and bones as if remembering the deceased individual.

Elephants’ memories are finely tuned to matters that ensure their survival which can extend up to 70 years. They remember and avoid the scent of a poacher they may have witnessed in the past, and they remember the compassion of humans like Lawrence Anthony. They remember where and when certain foods can be found. The seismic sound of a thunderstorm 100 miles away is thought to be sensed by their feet and they can plot a path, often from memory, to the promised water. In one experiment two men from different Kenyan ethnic groups, one Maasai and one Kamba were recorded saying in a calm voice using their respective languages “look over there, a group of elephants is coming”. The Maasai will kill elephants competing for water or cattle grazing space while the Kamba do not. When the recordings were played within earshot of Kenyan elephants, they organized in tight defensive positions in response to the Maasai language but remained calmer when they heard the Kamba language. Interestingly, the difference in the elephants' responses to the Maasai and Kamba was more pronounced when women's voices were played compared to men.

Olfactory and Tactile Abilities

In addition to hearing and infrasonic detection through the trunk and feet, (discussed above in “Communication), elephants have exceptional senses of touch and smell.

Elephant "Fingers"
Fine Motor Control
Elephants’ trunks are equipped for heavy lifting; they can lift more than 700 pounds. Yet the African elephant has two “fingers” on the tip of its trunk that are sensitive enough to detect a gap between slats separated by 1/64 of an inch. These fingers can pick up a single blade of grass and hold a brush to paint pictures.

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
In addition to using touch to communicate, touch is a very important sense that binds a herd of elephants. They purposefully touch one another using their trunk, ears, tusks, feet, tail, and even their entire body. They caress each other with their trunks, guide calves by holding their tails, reassure each other by pressing their bodies together. An orphan calf requires frequent touching to eat and otherwise remain healthy.

Extrasensory Perception

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.

New discoveries of infra-sensory perception have explained much of what once was assumed to be ESP. Birds find their way through storms over distances of thousands of miles by detecting the magnetic fields of the earth; similarly, marine mammals use magnetic fields in addition to sonar to navigate. For decades, new technologies have helped us uncover the detectable causes of what we once attributed to ESP. No combination of the extraordinary capabilities of elephants discussed here explains why herds of elephants appeared at Lawrence Anthony’s house shortly after his death.

Science Uncovering Elephants' Secrets
Without sanctioning ESP, my personal belief is that the appearance of two separate herds of elephants (assuming story is true) was due to undocumented sensory perceptions by the elephants visiting Lawrence Anthony’s house, or by undiscovered events that the elephants could sense. I suspect that someday we will learn why as we understand more about the extraordinary capabilities of these majestic creatures.

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.