7 Behaviors That Prove Elephants Are Incredibly Smart

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iStock

Elephants are exceptionally smart creatures. They have the largest brain of any land animal, and three times as many neurons as humans. While many of these neurons exist to control the elephant’s large and dexterous body, these creatures have demonstrated their impressive mental capabilities time and time again. Here, a few interesting findings about the intelligence of elephants.

1. THEY CAN IDENTIFY LANGUAGES.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK have discovered that African elephants can distinguish differences in human gender, age, and ethnicity purely by the sound of someone’s voice. If the voice belongs to a person who is more likely to pose a threat, the elephants switch into defensive mode.

To test this, researchers found two Kenyan men from different ethnic groups, the Maasai and the Kamba. The Maasai have a history of killing wild elephants, while the Kamba do not. The researchers recorded the two men saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” in their different languages, and played these recordings to elephant family groups at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. When the elephants heard the Maasai, they showed signs of fear, huddling together and moving away from the voice. But the same phrase spoken by a Kamba man evoked no reaction from the elephants. "The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages," said the study’s co-author Graeme Shannon, a visiting fellow in psychology at the University of Sussex.

What’s more, the same recordings made by women and children of either tribe left the elephants unfazed, suggesting they can not only distinguish between ethnic groups, but between age and gender as well, knowing that men are the most likely to pose a threat, especially Maasai men.

2. THEY CAN USE TOOLS.

In 2010, a 7-year-old Asian elephant named Kandula impressed researchers by utilizing tools from his surroundings to reach fruit that had been strategically placed just beyond his reach. After watching the fruit, tantalizingly, for a few days, Kandula had an "aha moment." He found a large plastic block, rolled it over, and stepped on it, propping himself up just far enough to reach the fruit with his trunk. While Kandula’s “aha moment” didn’t happen immediately, it stuck with him. He repeated the trick with other tools, and even figured out how to stack blocks to reach even higher.

Similarly, elephants have been known to use sticks to scratch themselves in areas they couldn’t otherwise reach, and fashion fly swatters out of branches or grass. Others have been observed digging a hole to reach drinking water, and then plugging the hole with a ball formed from chewed bark to prevent the water from evaporating, thus saving it for later use.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND HUMAN BODY LANGUAGE.

Researchers recently observed evidence that elephants might understand human pointing. They tested this by pointing at food hidden in one of two identical containers, and observing which container a group of captive African elephants approached. Without any previous training, the elephants picked the correct container almost 68 percent of the time. That’s only about 5 percent lower than how one-year-old human babies perform on similar tests. When researchers stood between the containers and did not point, the elephants approached them randomly.

4. THEY SHOW EMPATHY.

A recent study [PDF] observed Asian elephants comforting one another when distressed. The elephants in the study used both physical contact and vocal sounds as forms of comfort, stroking one another with their trunks and emitting small chirps. The study concluded this behavior is "best classified with similar consolation responses by apes, possibly based on convergent evolution of empathic capacities."

5. THEY MOURN THEIR DEAD.

It would be a stretch to say elephants, or any other animals, understand death in the same way humans do. But elephants have demonstrated fascinating reactions to the deaths of their kind, often displaying what appear to humans as symptoms of grief and mourning. They caress the bones of the dead with their trunks and will stand near the body of the deceased for hours. Sometimes they even try to bury the remains. They don't behave this way toward the remains of other animals. In this powerful photo, taken by John Chaney for National Geographic, a female elephant "very slowly and with much empathy wrapped her trunk around the deceased elephant’s tusk. She stayed in this position for several hours…"

6. THEY MIMIC HUMAN VOICES.

An Asian elephant named Koshik baffled researchers in 2012 when they realized he could say five words in Korean. "If you consider the huge size of the elephant and the long vocal tract and other anatomic differences—for example he has a trunk instead of lips... and a huge larynx—and he is really matching the voice pitch of his trainers, this is really remarkable," said Dr. Angela Stoeger, a lead author of a study about Koshik that appeared in Current Biology. While it is almost certain Koshik doesn’t comprehend the meaning of the words, the researchers believe he began mimicking sound as a way to bond with humans, which were his only form of social contact during his formative years.

7. THEY HAVE EXTRAORDINARY MEMORIES.

You knew this one, but let’s point to some specific examples. Elephants can remember routes to watering holes over incredibly long stretches of time and space. This is necessary for elephants that live in the desert where water is scarce. Research also shows that elephants often form close bonds with companions, and can recognize them even after long periods of separation. Dr. Shermin de Silva, now director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka, said in 2011 that “Elephants are able to track one another over large distances by calling to each other and using their sense of smell … Our work shows that they are able to recognize their friends and renew these bonds even after being apart for a long time." In 1999, two elephants named Shirley and Jenny, once companions in a circus, reunited at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee after more than 20 years apart. Their immediate bonding can be seen in the video above, shot during their reunion.

The Weird, Disturbing World of Snail Sex

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Romance is rare in the animal kingdom. Instead of wooing their partners before copulating, male ducks force themselves onto females, depositing genetic material with spiky, corkscrew penises. Then, there's tardigrade sex, which is less violent but not exactly heartwarming. Females lay eggs into a husk of dead skin. The male then ejaculates onto the eggs while stroking the female, and the whole process can take up to an hour.

But you can't talk about disturbing mating rituals in nature without mentioning snails. If you're unfamiliar with snail sexuality, you may assume that snail sex falls on the vanilla side: The mollusks, after all, are famous for being slow-moving and they don't even have limbs. But if you have the patience to watch a pair of snails going at it, you'll notice that things get interesting.

The first factor that complicates snail sex is their genitalia. Snails are hermaphrodites, meaning individuals have both a male set and female set of parts, and any two snails can reproduce with each other regardless of sex. But in order for a couple of snails to make little snail babies, one of them needs to take on the role of the female. That's where the love dart comes in.

The love dart, technically called a gypsobelum, isn't exactly the Cupid's arrow the name suggests. It's a nail-clipping-sized spike that snails jab into their partners about 30 minutes before the actual sex act takes place. The sliver is packed with hormones that prepare the receiving snail's body for sperm. Depending on the species, only one snail might release the dart, or they both might in an attempt to avoid becoming the female of the pair. You can watch the action in the video below.

For sex to be successful, both snails must insert their penises into the other's vaginal tracts at the same time. Both snails deposit sperm, and the strength of the love dart ultimately determines whether or not that sperm fertilizes their partner's eggs.

That's assuming the snail survives the little love-stab. In human proportions, the love dart is the equivalent of a 15-inch knife. Fortunately, snails are resilient creatures, and gastropod researcher Joris Koene tells KQED he's only ever seen one snail die from the transfer.

Snails also have a way of making it up to their partners after skewering them with a hormone stick. Their sperm deposit contains a dose of fortifying nutrients, something scientists refer to as a nuptial gift. It may not equal the energy expended during sex, but its enough to give them a small post-coital boost.

14 Adorable, Vintage Photos of Rabbits

Chaloner Woods, Getty Images
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

In honor of International Rabbit Day (held annually on the fourth Saturday of September), we've pulled photographic proof that the furry little mammals have always been appreciated by children and the adults who use a number of rabbit-related phrases and idioms more often than they probably realize.

1. DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

Nursery school children playing with their pet rabbit Bubbles; 1939.
David Parker, Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nursery school children playing with their pet rabbit Bubbles, 1939.

2. DUST BUNNY

 A woman spinning Angora rabbit wool in her garden, 1930.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

A woman spinning Angora rabbit wool in her garden, 1930.

3. MAD AS A MARCH HARE

A young boy holds a pet rabbit, 1955.
Charles Ley, BIPs/Getty Images

A young boy holds a pet rabbit, 1955.

4. BUY THE RABBIT

A golfer makes a practice drive while his pet rabbit minds the balls; 1938.
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A golfer makes a practice drive while his pet rabbit minds the balls, 1938.

5. HONEY BUNNY

School children petting rabbits; 1949.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Schoolchildren petting rabbits, 1949.

6. HAREBRAINED IDEA

A woman took her Himalayan rabbit, Albrecht Durer, on a walk in Hyde Park, 1939.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

A woman took her Himalayan rabbit, Albrecht Durer, on a walk in Hyde Park, 1939.

7. CUDDLE BUNNY

A little girl petting a large rabbit, 1949.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

A little girl petting a large rabbit, 1949.

8. LUCKY RABBIT'S FOOT

Schoolgirls care for pet rabbits, 1932.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Schoolgirls care for pet rabbits, 1932.

9. PULL A RABBIT OUT OF A HAT

A young magician and his rabbit, 1971.
George W. Hales, Fox Photos/Getty Images

A young magician and his rabbit, 1971.

10. SNOW BUNNY

A woman shows off her two pet angora rabbits, circa 1955.
George Pickow, Three Lions/Getty Images

A woman shows off her two pet angora rabbits, circa 1955. Angoras can be sheared to provide enough wool for two sweaters each year.

11. THE EASTER BUNNY

A little girl holds an Easter bunny on a leash, circa 1955.
George Pickow, Three Lions/Getty Images

A little girl holds an Easter bunny on a leash, circa 1955.

12. A RABBIT TRAIL

Three children hold a rabbit, 1935.
H. Allen, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Three children hold a rabbit, 1935.

13. RABBIT FOOD

A boy feeds his pet rabbit a lettuce leaf, circa 1955.
George Pickow, Three Lions/Getty Images

A boy feeds his pet rabbit a lettuce leaf, circa 1955.

14. RABBITING ON

Actresses Fiona Fullerton and Clare Clifford posting some of the many letters sent to the House of Lords and parliamentary candidates to request support for World Day for Laboratory Animals which was instituted that year, 1979.
Central Press, Getty Images

Actresses Fiona Fullerton and Clare Clifford posting some of the many letters sent to the House of Lords and parliamentary candidates to request support for World Day for Laboratory Animals which was instituted that year, 1979.

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