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Calf playing with sack   Calf playing with sack

Calf playing with sack    Calf playing with sack
A calf playing with a sack. Play behaviour is an important component of the development of young animals. In mammals, lack of opportunities to play has been found to negatively affect physical development of the brain.

Wild male with a trunk injury
This wild male in Mavanalla, in the state of Tamil Nadu, India, lost the tip of his trunk to a poacher's snare. Losing the versatile, finger-like tip renders an elephant almost unable to pick up food. This elephant's life was saved by the local veterinarian and the non-profit organization IPAN, by providing food directly to the mouth and by treating the infected wound. Once the elephant recovered, he learned on his own how to use his front foot to assist his trunk in getting food to his mouth.

Calf examining what a juvenile is eating
A calf is examining what a juvenile male is eating. Placing one's trunk tip to another's mouth has a social meaning, in strengthening social bonds, but calves also appear to do it as a way to learn which species of plants are edible.
Intelligence and memory

The proverbial memory of elephants is real. Elephants also are among the most intelligent mammals, second only to apes and dolphins.


Elephants have an unusually long memory, especially for social relationships and geographical locations. There are documented cases in which elephants in captivity have recognized familiar individuals such as family members, even by smell alone, after decades of separation.

In the wild, elephants rely on the virtual maps in their minds to get enough food and water in their vast territories even during drought. Researchers tracing the movements of wild elephants with GPS equipment have found they travel tens of kilometres, sometimes even hundreds, from one water hole to another. When visiting this network of resources, elephants often take the shortest route, showing they know where they are going.

Family groups of elephants are led by matriarch, the eldest female in the group. The memory of the matriarch is especially crucial to the others, as they follow the matriarch while she walks the routes etched in her mind.

Self-recognition and cooperation

Experiments have shown that at least some elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror, which for example dogs and cats cannot do. The percentage of individual elephants that pass this test is approximately the same as in chimpanzees, althoug only a very small number of individuals have been tested so far in either species.

Elephants also understand when a task requires cooperation. They have for example passed a test in which food was placed out of reach and could be obtained only if two elephants pulled a rope at the same time. One could naturally train animals to perform such tricks, but in this test the elephants had not been trained and invented the solution themselves.

Tool use

When scientist talk about tool use in animals, this refers to using any object to manipulate the environment - such as when chimpanzees use sticks to "fish" termites from termite mounds, or a sea otter bangs a clam with a stone to break the shell.

Some species always use the same types of tools in the same way, but there also are a few species that use a variety of objects and modify their tools. Elephants belong to this group. Most reports of elephant tool use involve Asian elephants, both those in the wild and spontaneous tool use in captivity. The most common example is swithcing flies with a branch, but elephants have also been seen sctratching themselves with a stick, throwing sticks and stones at other animals at a fruit tree, and placing branches on swampy ground before walking over it.

In experimental conditions, elephants have also shown an ability for insightful use of objects. In one experiment, in which food was hoisted high up, out of trunk's reach, an elephant moved a large, sturdy plastic cube below it to stand on. Elephants have also stacked blocks on top of another for the same purpose.

Learning by observing and playing

Learning plays an important role in the lives of elephants in the wild. Elephants learn by trial and error, and also by observing other elephants. The easiest things for them to learn are informations on places or other characteristics of the environment, such as where to find water or which plants are edible. Tool use is a more complex process to learn, and only some individuals learn it by watching others.

This type of learning is different from training of elephants in captivity. In the wild, elephants observe and experiment in order to learn on their own. In captivity, elephants are usually trained to do repetitive, rather simple tasks to perform work designated by people.

Play is an important part of learning for elephants, as well as for other intelligent animals. In addition to providing opportunities for experimenting and rehearsing with body movements, play also brings a more general benefit, which some researchers call "training for the unexpected": rehearsing the ability to react quickly and flexibly in situations that are not fully predictable.

Explore further

For more in-depth information on elephant intelligence, see the website of Think Elephants International, maintained by some of the leading scientists in elephant cognition.

Copyright © Elephant Experts 2014-2016
Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere