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7 Behaviors That Prove Elephants Are Incredibly Smart

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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.

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12 Furry Facts About Red Pandas
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Red pandas have always lived in the shadow of the other, more famous panda. But now it's time to give the little guy its due.

1. THEY HAVE TWO EXTINCT RELATIVES.

Red panda in a tree.
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Currently, red pandas live in the Eastern Himalayas. But the first red panda fossil was found a little bit further afield than that—in the United Kingdom. In 1888, a fossil molar and lower jaw of a cougar-sized animal called the Giant Panda (unrelated to the modern giant panda) were discovered. More fossils have been found in Spain, Eastern Europe, and even the United States. Around 5 million years ago, Tennessee was home to a giant red panda that probably went extinct with the arrival of raccoons.

2. THEY'RE VEGETARIAN CARNIVORES.

Red panda eating bamboo.
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It might seem like an oxymoron, but carnivore in this case doesn't mean meat eater. Carnivore is a biological order that includes groups like bears, dogs, and cats, and while these animals are generally carnivores, some are omnivores, and some are vegetarians. Red pandas are classified as carnivores because they're descended from the same ancestors as the other carnivores, but they rarely eat anything other than bamboo and a few insects. And while giant pandas eat all of a bamboo plant, red pandas eat only the young leaves. Because this is such a nutritionally poor food source, they need to spend 13 hours a day eating and looking for food and can lose upwards of 15 percent of their body weight in winter.

3. THEY'RE SLIGHTLY BIGGER THAN A DOMESTIC CAT.

Red panda sleeping on a branch.
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But their tails add as much as 18 inches to their length. Red pandas live solitary lives in trees, high up in the mountains, so they wrap those big, bushy tails around themselves to keep warm. (They also use them for balance.)

4. THEY HAVE A FALSE THUMB.

Red panda perched on a log.
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This is another feature (along with diet) that red pandas and giant pandas share. Because both pandas have false thumbs—which is actually an extended wrist bone—it was thought that it must be an adaption to eating bamboo. But the red panda's more carnivorous ancestors had this feature as well. According to a 2006 study, what happened was "one of the most dramatic cases of convergence among vertebrates." Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals faced with similar circumstances evolve to look similar. In this case, the red panda's false thumb evolved to help it climb trees, and only later became adapted for the bamboo diet, while giant pandas evolved this virtually identical feature because of their bamboo diet.

5. THEY'RE ESCAPE ARTISTS.

Red panda climbing across a tree.
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Rusty the red panda had been at the Smithsonian National Zoo for just three weeks when he made a break for it in June 2013. His method of escape? A tree branch that was pushed down over his enclosure's electric fence by heavy rains. The ensuing panda hunt (and endless bad jokes about panda-monium) captivated Twitter (tweeters used the hashtag #findrusty) until he was found in a nearby neighborhood. Soon after his daring escape, Rusty became a father, forcing him to put his wild youth behind him and settle down. But it could have been worse. After a similar escape in Dresden, Germany, the authorities got another red panda down from a tree by using a fire hose to spray it with water. The panda fell 30 feet to the ground, giving it a concussion. (Ultimately, the animal was OK.)

Red pandas have also escaped from zoos in London, Birmingham, and Rotterdam. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums even warn in their official care manual "beware: red pandas are escape artists" [PDF].

6. ONE ESCAPE LED TO SOMETHING CALLED THE RED PANDA EFFECT.

Red panda peeking out from behind some tree branches.
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Sadly, the red panda involved in the 1978 Rotterdam escape was found dead not long after the search for it began. But the event led to a very peculiar psychological observation. Even after the body of the panda was found, more than 100 people reported seeing it, very much alive. These sightings were clearly mistaken; there's no reason to think that multiple red pandas were loose in Rotterdam, and red pandas are distinctive enough that mistaking them for a dog or cat was unlikely. It's believed that people expected to see a red panda, so they saw one, even though there wasn't one there; researchers called it the Red Panda Effect.

7. THERE'S AN INTERNET BROWSER NAMED AFTER THEM.

The Mozilla Firefox logo.
LEON NEAL, AFP/Getty Images

Mozilla's flagship browser, Firefox, means red panda. Originally, Mozilla wanted to name the browser Firebird, but found that another open source project was using that name. Not wanting to upset anyone, they decided to go with Firefox, another name for the red panda. And in a true example of adorableness, in 2010 Mozilla adopted two baby red pandas that had been born at Tennessee's Knoxville Zoo.

8. THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE PANDA—AND YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS WHICH ONE IT IS.

Engraving of a parti-colored bear.
Engraving of a parti-colored bear, from The New Natural History Volume II by Richard Lydekker, 1901.

After the red panda was discovered in the 1820s, it was just called the panda (the origin of the name is controversial, but it probably comes from the Nepali word ponya, meaning "bamboo or plant eating animal"). Forty years later, Europeans found a new animal in China and called it the Parti-Colored bear—because unlike polar bears, black bears, or brown bears it was multi-colored.

9. THERE HAS BEEN A 140-YEAR TAXONOMIC MIX-UP.

A red panda walking toward the camera.
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Prepare to be confused: In the late 19th century, scientists noticed that the parti-colored bear and the (red) panda were very similar. Their jaws were more like each other than they were like any other animal, they lived near each other, they both had false thumbs, and their diets were similar. The decision was made to officially consider the (red) panda as a type of bear.

By the early 20th century, that decision was reversed: Parti-colored bears were declared bears, and (red) pandas were classified as cousins of the raccoon.

Then, in the 1910s, it was decided that parti-colored bears weren't actually bears at all, but were actually large pandas, and also distant relatives of the raccoon. But because parti-colored bears weren't classed as bears anymore, they had to have a name change. They became giant pandas, while the one true panda was renamed the red or lesser panda (to quote a 1920 issue of Popular Science: "Zoologists reverently refer to this rare beast as the "giant panda." Its more popular cognomen is the 'bear-raccoon'").

10. BUT RED PANDAS ARE THEIR OWN THING.

Two red pandas touch noses.
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By the 1980s, genetic evidence indicated that giant pandas actually were a type of bear, and red pandas belonged in their own family, the Ailuridae. They might seem similar, but they're not related.

All of this means that if you're the type of person who rolls their eyes when someone calls a bison a buffalo, or a koala a bear, you need to stop calling the bear a panda and instead refer to it as a "parti-colored bear," the original English name (but if you wanted to call it the bear-raccoon, no one would stop you). Giant pandas are not pandas. There is only one true panda.

11. BUT THIS DOESN'T AFFECT KUNG FU PANDA 3.

Red panda with teeth bared.
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There's still a kung fu panda in the series: Shifu, a red panda.

12. THEY'RE ENDANGERED.

Red panda laying down and sticking his tongue out.
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According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are fewer than 10,000 red pandas left in the wild. Habitat destruction increases the species' chances of extinction.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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There’s No Safe Amount of Time to Leave a Dog in a Hot Car
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We often think of dogs as indomitable and durable animals who can fend off attackers, tirelessly chase Frisbees, and even eat poop without digestive consequences.

It’s true that dogs generally have a solid constitution, but that shouldn’t lead you to believe they can endure one of the biggest mistakes a pet owner can make: Leaving them in a hot car, even for a few minutes, puts a dog’s life at serious risk.

Even on relatively cool days with temperatures around 71.6°F, the inside of a vehicle can reach 116.6°F within an hour, as Quartz highlights.

If it’s a scorching summer heat wave, an 80-degree day will see temperatures get up to 99°F in just 10 minutes; a 90-degree day can turn the car into an oven at 119°F in the same amount of time.

Dogs can't tolerate this kind of heat. As their bodies struggle to cool down, the temperature is often more than they can expel through panting and opening capillaries in the skin. If their body reaches a temperature of 105.8°F, they're at risk of heatstroke, which only half of dogs survive. At 111.2°F, a lack of blood circulation can cause kidney failure and internal bleeding. Brain damage and death is very likely at this point. Depending on the outside temperature, it can happen in as little as six minutes. Cracking windows won't help.

Unless you plan on leaving your vehicle running with the air conditioning on (and we don't recommend that), there’s really no safe amount of time to leave a pet inside. If you do come back to find a listless dog who is unresponsive, it’s best to get to a veterinarian as soon as possible. And if you’re a bystander who sees a dog trapped inside a car, alert the nearest store to try and make an announcement to get the owner back to the vehicle. You can also phone local law enforcement or animal control. In some states, including California, you’re legally allowed to enter a vehicle to rescue a distressed animal.

[h/t Quartz]

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