How Smart Are Elephants?



Guess who has the largest brain out of all land mammals? Elephants! If scientists were to list the most intelligent animal species, elephants would be close to the top. But how smart are elephants, and how have scientists identified their cognitive abilities?

Elephants have incredible skills, like conveying various complex feelings and making creative use of tools. They’re the most socially complex, intellectual, and conventionally educated non-human species. They can understand human body language, show empathy, and mimic the human voice. Their memory is their greatest asset.

But elephant intelligence doesn’t stop with these smart responses and survival strategies. Let’s examine in detail how intelligent elephants are.

African elephants in the wild

5 Proven Facts That Show How Smart Elephants Are

Elephants are brilliant animals. Their neuron count is three times that of humans. These animals have repeatedly shown their exceptional mental ability, even though a substantial portion of these neurons is used to regulate the elephant’s massive and agile body.

Rench, an elephant intelligence research scientist, observed that captive elephants were surprisingly skilled at cooperating and working without much guidance.

He began to believe that elephants had the capacity for foresight after watching them lifting and hauling enormous logs onto a truck with such incredible balance and coordination.

Here are some fascinating discoveries on elephant intelligence.

Elephant painting

1. They Comprehend Human Body Language

Recent research findings suggest that elephants can interpret human gesturing.

They did this by pointing at food concealed in one of two otherwise similar containers and watching which container a herd of captive African elephants chose. 

The elephants picked the proper container about 68% of the time, even without prior instruction. On comparable exams, one-year-old human newborns only do around 5% worse than that. 

The elephants approached the researchers randomly while standing between the containers without pointing.

2. They Express Compassion and Sympathy

In a recent investigation, researchers saw Asian elephants comforting each other during stress.

The elephants in the research comforted one another by touching each other’s trunks and making short vocal noises. 

The study concluded that this specific behavior was to be classified under the same consolation responses observed in apes. This was due to the convergence of evolutionary empathic sentiments in these animals.

Below is an example captured by locals.

3. Elephants Remember Their Kind

Elephants remember members of their species much better than we could imagine.

In a story by Carol Buckley, two elephants named Shirley (53 years old) and Jenny (30 years old) had a reunion at the Elephant Sanctuary, having been separated for 23 years and having only known each other for a few months prior. 

The first sign that the two elephants knew one another was the joyous greeting they gave each other when they were reintroduced.

When Jenny laid down, Shirley protected her, shielding her body from the sun and any injury as though she were a child.

This was an odd display of maternal behavior on Shirley’s part. They had a mother-daughter bond for the remainder of Jenny’s life.

According to Carol, Shirley was around 30 years old, and Jenny was a calf when they were last together in a circus.

The way they interacted with one another at the Elephant Sanctuary suggested that they still knew one another and the unique adult-calf bond they formerly had.

You can watch the magical reunion below.

4. Their Memory Is Incredible

Generally, creatures with giant brains exhibit higher cerebral cortex growth, have larger cognitive capacities, and seem capable of learning more challenging tasks. Therefore, large mammals with larger brains are better at memory or can hold onto knowledge for extended periods.

Elephants have a very long lifespan. For years, they recall the smell and voices of other people’s migratory patterns, specific locations, and the skills they were taught.

They also accumulate and preserve social and ecological information.

Let’s use a few particular instances as examples. After a one-year break, Rench tested a female again on a few of the visual discriminating pairs she had previously learned, and she reached an accuracy rate of 73–100%.

Elephants have extraordinary memory for the locations of water sites. Elephants living in the dry desert need this since there is no water there. 

Additionally, studies reveal that elephants frequently build strong ties with their partners and can identify them even after extended separation.

5. Elephants Can Use Tools

In 2010, a 7-year-old Asian elephant named Kandula shocked scientists by using objects from his habitat to obtain fruit that was put out of his grasp on purpose.

Kandula experienced a stroke of genius after sensually observing the fruit for a few days. 

He raised himself enough to use his trunk to reach the fruit after locating a big plastic block, rolling it over, and stepping on it. 

Even though Kandula’s “aha moment” didn’t occur immediately, he still remembered it. He replicated the act using different tools and even learned to stack bricks for added height.

Elephants have also been observed making fly swatters out of grass or branches and using sticks to scratch themselves in places they otherwise couldn’t touch. 

Others have been spotted creating a hole to access drinking water, then sealing it with a bark-chewed ball to keep the water from drying and preserving it for later use.

Watch Kandula getting his fruits from the elevated basket below.

Final Thoughts on How Smart Are Elephants

Elephants are incredibly giant, human-loving, mentally smarter creatures than most mammals and many other animal species.

How many animals have you seen scratching themselves with sticks, taking care of each other, and experiencing complex emotions such as sadness and love bonds?

Elephants can do all that and much more.


What Techniques Can Be Used to Assess the Intelligence of Elephants?

In addition to using the mirror test to gauge self-awareness, researchers regularly monitor elephants’ social interactions. To evaluate if elephant groups can express complex emotions, communicate, and collaborate with one another, researchers examine aspects such as social dynamics and hierarchies inside the elephant groups.

Can Elephants Do the Mirror Test?

The ability of an animal to identify itself in a mirror is used to gauge its level of self-awareness. Elephants subjected to the mirror test have shown potential. Studies have revealed that Asian elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, but we still need a more thorough investigation.

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