senses and cognition
and in society
In addition to possessing an exceptionally well-developed sense of smell, the trunk also is one of the body parts most sensitive to touch - not only at the tip, but also all along its length. One of the reasons is that the trunk is partly derived from the upper lip, which is especially rich in touch receptors (nerve endings on the skin surface).
When a captive elephant appears to listen, although a human observer hears nothing, it may be listening to infrasonic vocalizations of other elephants. If there are wild elephants in the area, captive elephants hear them as well. The lower a sound is, the further it travels. That is why elephants can hear each other's infrasound from many kilometres away.
Elephants do also look at us, especially if we are at a close distance where they can see us better. However, vision is one of the less central senses to them. If visual information contradicts with other senses - for example, if something smells suspicious - the elephant is most likely to believe those other senses.
An elephant's world is, above all, one of sounds, smells and touches. Their hearing range extends to infrasound: they hear sounds that are too low for us to perceive. Contrary to common belief, the surface of their thick skin is very sensitive to touch and pain.
Contrary to popular belief, an elephant's skin is rich with nerve endings that sense touch and pain. The most sensitive area of all is the surface of the trunk. This is not suprising, considering that it has partly evolved from the upper lip.
An elephant's skin is about an inch thick in most body parts, although it is paper-thin in some areas, such as behind the ears. However, sensitivity to touch does not depend on the thickness of skin. In elephants, the numerous nerve endings that sense touch and pain, are on the surface of the skin. Their sensitivity is not affected by how much skin there is beneath them.
Elephants put this sensitivity to good use in their social interactions. Meetings of familiar invididuals are typically characterized by intertwining trunks and by frequent gentle touching the other's body.
Some elephants do not seem to react visibly when they are hit. This is not due to an inability to feel, but instead because such elephants have typically learned they will be punished if they show a visible reaction.
The rich world of scents is one of the most important sources of information for elephants. According to recent research, elephants may have one of the most acute senses of smell among all mammals. This was inferred from the finding that elephants have exceptionally may genes involved in smell detection; more than twice as many as dogs, for example.
In the photo on the left, a male is sniffing a female to find out whether she will soon be in oestrus, the reproductively active state. These elephants live at a forest camp in India, hence the drag chains and hobbled front feet.
The sensory world of captive elephants is as acute as that of wild elephants. If a captive elephant suddenly startles or refuses to move, it may be because the elephant has smelled or heard something that people cannot detect, but which in the elephant's mind has earlier become associated with something frightening.
Elephants have excellent hearing, being able to detect some sounds that are too faint for us to hear. Elephants also hear infrasounds: sounds that are so low-pitched that they fall below the human hearing range. Such sounds appear entirely silent to us, no matter how loud they may actually be. Infrasounds have an important role in elephant communication.
On the other hand, the upper limit of elephants' hearing range is lower than that of humans. The highest sounds that we hear - such as a very high-pitched whistle - are impossible for elephants to hear.
There has been no fully conclusive research on what elephants actually see. However, judging from results so far, elephants do not see quite as well as humans. They may be a little near-sighted compared to us, seeing better at close range than at distance. On the other hand, in very dim light elephants see better than us.
The colour vision of elephants is probably dichromatic, as in many mammals. This means elephants do see blue, yellow and related hues, but they cannot see red.
Although elephants' eyes are located on the sides of the head, their field of vision is limited by the ears getting on the way when they try to look back. This is why some captive elephants get restless if an unfamiliar human walks on the side or behind an elephant.
There has not been very much research on how elephants distinguish tastes. However, the elephant tongue doe have taste buds, and individual elephants show preferences for specific foods, indicating that taste has meaning for them too.
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