Elephants continue to fascinate both scientists and general observers alike. They are recognised as being among the most intelligent creatures on earth. In fact, some enthusiasts believe that their intelligence rivals that of human beings. Aristotle even said of elephants: “The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind”.
Proportionally, the elephant’s brain is the most sizeable at a mass of just over 5kg. Although the largest whale is 20 times the body size of an elephant, its brain is just under twice the size. The need for such a large and complex organ becomes clear when we consider the behaviours and abilities of these animals. Elephants are capable of a range of emotions, including joy, playfulness, grief and mourning. In addition, elephants are able to learn new facts and behaviours, mimic sounds that they hear, self-medicate, play with a sense of humour, perform artistic activities, use tools and display compassion and self-awareness.
Part of the reason that elephants possess such a superior level of intelligence is the structure of their brain. Their neocortex is highly convoluted, as it is in humans, apes and some dolphins. This is generally accepted to be an indication of complex intelligence. The cortex is thick and comprises many neurons. The elephant is one of the few creatures (along with human beings) that is not born with survival instincts, but needs to learn these during infancy and adolescence. The brain is specially designed to accomplish this sort of life learning. Elephants and humans have a similar lifespan, and plenty of time, approximately 10 years, is allowed for them to learn before they are considered to be independent adults. The lessons learnt include how to feed, use tools and understand their place in their social structure. Elephants’ capacity for memory and emotions is remarkable and is due to the well-developed hippocampus. This is also the area responsible for emotional flashbacks and is the reason that elephants experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The insight and intelligence of the elephant is particularly note-worthy in their ability to mourn their dead. This behaviour has only previously been noted in humans. In fact, recently deceased elephants will receive a burial ceremony, while those who are already reduced to a skeleton are still paid respect by passing herds. The burial ceremony is marked by deep rumblings while the dead body is touched and caressed by the herd members’ trunks.
Intelligence is also manifested in the elephant’s ability to self-medicate. When a pregnant mother is due to give birth, she will chew on the leaves of the tree from the Boraginaceae family to induce labour.
Another ability that indicates superior intellect is elephants’ ability to play and display a sense of humour. Games include throwing a stick at a certain object, passing an object from one animal to another, or squirting water out of the trunk in a fountain. Elephants in zoos have even been seen stealing onlookers’ caps and hiding them in playful teasing.
The ability to mimic sounds is another indication of the impressive intelligence of these beasts. Elephants have been recorded mimicking passing trucks and even the sounds made by their trainers. Often, the elephant manages to articulate certain sounds so that they bear a strong resemblance to the spoken word.
Elephants are able to use tools or implements to accomplish a task they cannot perform on their own. They have been observed digging holes for drinking water, then moulding bark from a tree into the shape of a ball and placing it on top of the hole and covering it over with sand to avoid evaporation. They also use sticks to scratch their backs when their trunk can not reach and have been known to drop rocks on electric fences to damage them.
The elephant’s problem solving abilities are another impressive facet of their boundless intelligence. Incredibly, the elephant is able to change its behaviour based on a given situation. Bandula, an Asian elephant in captivity, had learnt how to release the complex hook on her shackles and would then assist her fellow ‘inmates’ to escape from theirs.
Self awareness is yet another indication of the vast capacity for thinking and intellect that exists in the elephant. They can, in fact, recognise themselves in a mirror, something that is extremely rare in the animal kingdom.
These capabilities are merely touching the tip of the iceberg of what is the elephant’s capacity for insight, thought and discernment. And it is this capacity that continues to captivate researchers and onlookers alike in their eternal quest to understand the mystery of the elephant psyche.