Are Elephants Really as Smart and Social as We Like to Think?

New research put to the test the sentimental assumptions we make when we see videos of elephants comforting one another or helping a fallen individual.

(Photo: Elise Gilchrist/Think Elephants International Inc.)

Feb 18, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

One time, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I was visiting with researchers studying a baboon troop when one of the animals became separated from her mates. In the distance, Sashe, as we knew her, started to give out her tremulous, plaintive “lost call,” repeating it over and over. It was so heartrending that, after more than a half hour, all of us wanted to go out and lead her back by the hand ourselves. But the really disturbing thing was to be with the troop, and see her friends and family going about their business, blandly indifferent, as if deaf, to Sashe’s plight.

Monkeys may look like us. They may even act like us in some circumstances. But they don’t have our capacity for empathy. They cannot put themselves in another animal’s place. So far, researchers have been able to demonstrate that ability to identify with and console a distressed individual only in great apes, some canines, and a few corvids, such as rooks and ravens.

It’s different, though, for elephants—or at least that’s what we’ve always believed. A new study published in the journal PeerJ and conducted in Thailand systematically tests that belief for the first time. “The reaction to this from the public,” says lead author Joshua Plotnik, who did the research as a doctoral student at Emory University, “is probably going to be ‘Why are scientists doing this? We already knew that.’ Which is of course one of the biggest problems in science. People assume something is true because they heard about it, or they saw a video, without ever testing it empirically.” But if we just accepted what we think we see and never tested it, says coauthor Frans de Waal (one of the world's foremost experts on animal behavior), we’d still believe the world is flat.

The idea for the new study was to put to the test all the sentimental assumptions we make when we see the videos of elephants seeming to comfort one another, or band together to help a fallen individual, or even seemingly grieve for their dead. Plotnik did his research at a 55-acre tourism facility, the Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province. The elephants there tend to be rescued animals, organized in artificial groups, and closely managed by their mahouts. The fenced areas where they live often also include rescued dogs.

It’s about as far from a natural population as you can get. But observing detailed social interactions would have been impossible in the dense forests where wild Asian elephants still live. The study also followed the practice that de Waal has made standard at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center: Start by closely observing and recording how animals in captive groups behave; then test the findings, where possible, in the wild.

Everyday circumstances at Elephant Nature Park—a dog being a nuisance or another elephant becoming aggressive—gave the elephants plenty of occasion to trumpet their distress, with ears flared out, tail raised, and trunk stiffened. Plotnik’s job was to record what happened over the next 10 minutes. Consistently, the other elephants responded, by trumpeting and bouncing their trunks in agitation or, if they were close to the victim, making a bird-like chirping sound.

That could just be emotional contagion, as also happens in humans: “He’s upset; I’m upset; everybody’s upset; I don’t know why we’re upset.” But other animals also often moved toward the distressed individual and made reassuring vocalizations and physical contact, touching the animal around the genitals and face. They sometimes bunched up protectively around the troubled individual.

Two older females were especially close. Jokia was apparently blind and easily alarmed. At the sound of her roaring, trumpeting, or rumbling, her friend Mae Pern typically moved quickly to her side. Each of them would put her trunk in the other’s mouth, says Plotnik, much as chimps put a finger in another chimp’s mouth, as a form of reassurance. “It’s as if to say, ‘I’m in a very vulnerable position. I’m not a threat to you. I’m here to help you.’ ” (But consolation only goes so far. At times, Mae Pern also seemed to take advantage of Jokia’s blindness to filch her food.)

The findings from the new study are in some ways reassuring for humans too: We take comfort in the idea that elephants have a special intelligence and a social sense akin to our own. And increasingly scientific evidence seems to confirm that this is the case. (In a previous experiment at Elephant Nature Park, for instance, Plotnik and his coauthors found that elephants quickly mastered a task requiring two of them to partner up and pull simultaneously on either end of a rope to bring food within reach.)

But Plotnik, now a postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University and founder of the nonprofit Think Elephants International, says he also hopes to apply his findings in elephant conservation. In Thailand, as elsewhere in Asia and Africa, hungry elephants often raid crops and attack farmers, and the farmers generally want them gone. But if we understand how elephants perceive the world, particularly by sound and smell, says Plotnik, “we can say, ‘Let’s try to think like an elephant.’ If we can understand how they use their sense of smell to navigate their physical world,” it becomes possible to design smarter conservation protocols using olfactory or other cues. He points to work by Lucy King of Save the Elephants. Because elephants dislike bees, she’s developed a project to construct inexpensive “beehive fences,” not only protecting farmland from elephants but also providing farmers with additional income from honey.

Understanding how elephants really think is thus not just a means of confirming our sentimental notions. It’s also how we can ensure that intelligent (and not so intelligent) fellow creatures continue to have a place to live in this world.