7 Behaviors That Prove Elephants Are Incredibly Smart

iStock
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.

Massive Swarms of Migrating Dragonflies Are So Large They’re Popping Up on Weather Radar

emprised/iStock via Getty Images
emprised/iStock via Getty Images

What do Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio all have in common? Epic swarms of dragonflies, among other things.

WSLS-TV reports that this week, weather radar registered what might first appear to be late summer rain showers. Instead, the green blotches turned out to be swarms of dragonflies—possibly green darners, a type of dragonfly that migrates south during the fall.

Norman Johnson, a professor of entomology at The Ohio State University, told CNN that although these swarms happen occasionally, they’re definitely not a regular occurrence. He thinks the dragonflies, which usually prefer to travel alone, may form packs based on certain weather conditions. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is: Johnson said that entomologists haven’t worked out all the details when it comes to dragonfly migration. They do know that the airborne insects cover an average of eight miles per day, while some overachievers can fly as far as 86.

Based on the radar footage shared by the National Weather Service’s Cleveland Office, the dragonfly clouds seem almost menacing. But, while swarms of any insect species aren’t exactly delightful, these creatures are both harmless and surprisingly beautiful, at least up close. Anna Barnett, a resident of Jeromesville, Ohio, even told CNN that witnessing the natural phenomenon was “amazing!”

Amazing as it may be to see, it’s hard to hear news about unpredictable animal behavior without wondering if it’s related in some way to Earth’s rising temperatures. After all, climate change has already affected wasps in Alabama, polar bears in Russia, and no doubt countless other animal species around the world.

[h/t WSLW-TV]

6 Fall Festivals Around the World That Celebrate Animals

Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images
Prakash Mathema, AFP/Getty Images

Where would humans be without animals? Chickens and cows give us eggs and milk, providing nourishment (and also cake). Horses, donkeys, and water buffalo are as hardworking as any person, and thanks to our pets, we always have a source of love and entertainment to come home to. It's time we celebrate animals more often, and to get you started, here are six fall festivals around the world that do just that.

1. Kukur Tihar

Dog in Nepal during a fall festival
Tuayai/iStock via Getty Images

A big part of Tihar, a five-day Hindu festival held in late autumn in Nepal, is giving thanks to other species. Crows, believed to be the messengers of death, are worshipped on the first day. Cows are worshipped on the third, and often oxen on the fourth. The second day, though, is all about man's best friend. Dogs are described favorably in Hindu religious texts, and it’s believed that they can warn people of impending danger and even death. In a ceremony called Kukur Tihar, people place flower garlands around the necks of both pet dogs and stray dogs to show their respect. A red dot (tika) is placed on their foreheads in an act of worship, and naturally, the dogs are spoiled with lots and lots of treats.

2. Transhumance Festival

Hundreds of sheep in the street
Pierre Philippe Marcou, AFP/Getty Images

In Spanish, this festival in Madrid is called Fiesta de la Trashumancia. The word transhumance refers to the act of moving herds of livestock to different grazing grounds depending on the season. In practice, it's quite the spectacle. Thousands of sheep have been led through the streets of Madrid each autumn since the festival was formally established in 1994. Men and women in traditional garb lead the way, singing and dancing along the parade route in celebration of centuries-old shepherding traditions.

3. Monkey Buffet Festival

A monkey eating various kinds of fruit
Saeed Khan, AFP/Getty Images

Visitors to Thailand’s temples are advised not to feed the monkeys (they can get awfully handsy), but the locals of Lopburi make an exception on the last Sunday of November. On this day, towers of fruit and banquet tables containing several tons of food and even cans of Coca-Cola are set up in the ruins of a 13th-century temple. Once a sheet is removed to unveil the spread, it doesn’t take long for Lopburi’s thousands of macaques to arrive. Thailand's reverence for monkeys dates back some 2000 years to legends surrounding the monkey king Hanuman and his heroic feats. Nowadays, the creatures are considered a sign of good luck in the country.

4. Woolly Worm Festival

The woolly worm is to Banner Elk, North Carolina, what the groundhog is to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to local folklore, the color of this fuzzy caterpillar can be analyzed in autumn to predict how severe the forthcoming winter will be. The 13 segments on its body are thought to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter—more black means colder weather and snow, while more brown means the weather will be fair. To make this prognostication process more official, the Woolly Worm Festival was established on the third weekend of October in 1978. This year, it will be held October 20-21. A worm race is the main event, and the caterpillar that climbs the fastest up three feet of string gets the honor of helping to predict the winter (plus a $1000 cash prize for the worm’s coach). “Patsy Climb” and “Dale Wormhardt” were a couple of past competitors.

5. Pushkar Camel Fair

Decorated camels
Roberto Schmidt, AFP/Getty Images

The Indian state of Rajasthan is a vibrant place. It’s home to the Pink City, Blue City, and Yellow City, and it also hosts a colorful cultural event each November called the Pushkar Camel Fair. Celebrated on a full moon day of the Hindu lunar calendar, it’s one of the largest fairs of its kind in the world. The annual gathering is a chance for traders to show off their camels and livestock, while also celebrating local culture and traditions. Both the people and camels sport brilliant attire, participate in a variety of competitions, and dance to lively music. (Yes, there’s video evidence of a dancing camel, but the word dance is used loosely.)

6. Birds of Chile Festival

Held each fall in Viña del Mar along Chile's Pacific coast, the Festival de Aves de Chile celebrates the beauty and diversity of the country's birds. Festival-goers have the chance to see Chile’s national bird—the wide-winged Andean condor, which happens to be one of the largest flying birds in the world—as well as other feathered friends in their natural environment. A series of excursions and talks featuring bird experts are organized each year.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER