5 Amazing Facts That Prove Elephants Are Smarter Than You Are (Or, Ok, Maybe Just Really Smart)

Posted By on Jul 7, 2014 | 0 comments

5 Amazing Facts That Prove Elephants Are Smarter Than You Are (Or, Ok, Maybe Just Really Smart)

Posted By on Jul 7, 2014 | 0 comments

The proper study of mankind is man, but when one regards the elephant, one wonders.

–attributed to Alexander Pope

Do you know how smart an elephant is?

No one really does, quite yet — but we’re getting a fairly good idea. They’re pretty much animal geniuses. They may even be smarter than you!

Well, ok, probably not. But they do have some seriously big brains. And I’m not just talking physically big . (Although, fun fact: an elephant’s brain weighs around 11 pounds — the biggest of all land animals).

An orphaned elephant playing football at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. (Photo by Mosi Lager.)

An orphaned elephant playing football at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. (Photo by Mosi Lager.)

Elephants are one of the earth’s most intelligent animals, and scientists and researchers are still only just starting to understand how smart they are. Here are 5 amazing facts about the genius of elephants.

1. Elephant Brains Are More Like Raisins (Hint: They’re Wrinkly)

When we were kids, my brother and I used to squabble constantly about who had a bigger brain. Yeah… we were darlings. (Sorry, Mom.) Then, someone told us that it’s not actually the size of your brain that makes you intelligent — it’s the number of wrinkles. We promptly turned that into our next ammunition. “My brain is like a raisin and yours is like a bowling ball!” “No way. Mine has a million wrinkles and yours only has three!”

The jury’s still out on which one of us is wrinklier, brain-wise (I grudgingly admit — it might be my brother). But little did we know… my favorite animal, the elephant, has outwrinkled us all:

Elephants have more complex folds in their brains than all animals other than whales, helping make them one of the earth’s most intelligent animals. They also have the most developed hippocampus — the part of the brain that controls emotions and spacial awareness — of any other animal.

2. Elephants Can Distinguish Between Human Languages (and Even Learn to Speak Them)

If you could talk to an elephant, would would you say? And more importantly… what would she say back? It’s maybe not as far-fetched a question as you think.

Scientists are only just discovering the astounding ways elephants interact with human languages. For example, a recent study found that elephants can tell the difference between different human languages and associate certain languages with danger. Even more amazing, a lonely elephant in Korea — on his own, without being purposefully taught — learned how to use his trunk to mimic the sounds of eight words spoken by his zookeepers.

And then, elephants have their own languages, too — a complex inter-elephant communication system that we’re only still learning about. Elephants talk to each other when they rumble, chirp, trumpet, nudge, kick, tilt their heads, flap their ears, and curl or uncurl their trunks. They can even communicate long-distance by stomping vibrations into the ground that can be heard by another elephant miles away. Whoah.

Trumpeting is just one way ellies communicate with each other. (Photo by  Aussie Active Photologue.)

Trumpeting is just one way ellies communicate with each other. (Photo by Aussie Active Photologue.)

3. Elephants Are Self-Aware, but Not Self-Absorbed

Elephants have been proven to recognize themselves in a mirror, joining the brilliant ranks of self-aware animals like some apes, human children, dolphins, and parakeets.

But self-aware doesn’t mean self-obsessed. Elephants are also one of the most empathetic animals that we know of, even going out of their way to take care of other species. There are a lot of moving stories of elephants showing altruism toward other species, such as rescuing trapped dogs or guarding over an injured human, at considerable cost to themselves.

Elephants are also a species that’s all about community, working for the greater good of the family, and team work. As elephant researcher Joyce Poole has written,

“Being part of an elephant family is all about unity and working together for the greater good. When they are getting ready to do a group charge, for example, they all look to one another: ‘Are we all together? Are we ready to do this?’ When they succeed, they have an enormous celebration, trumpeting, rumbling, lifting their heads high, clanking tusks together, intertwining their trunks.”

4. Elephants Use Tools Like a Pro

Got an itch you just can’t scratch? How about a pesky electric fence that’s blocking your path?

There’s a tool for that!

Elephants are famed for their problem-solving abilities — one of the major characteristics of intelligent animals. And when they’ve got a problem to solve, sometimes they use tools, wielding them like a pro with their trunks. Holding a stick with a trunk is a great way to swipe away those pesky flies.

Photo by Chase Dekker

Elephants have been known to use sticks as tools. Also, they are tasty. (Photo by Chase Dekker.)

Sometimes they even create their own tools. For example, elephants have been observed digging holes to drink water and then ripping bark from a tree, chewing it into the shape of a ball, filling in the hole and covering over it with sand to keep it from evaporating, then later going back to the spot for a drink.

Elephants have also been known to drop very large rocks onto an electric fence either to ruin the fence or to cut off the electricity. Another elephant created his own stepping stool to get to a piece of tasty fruit he couldn’t reach.

5. Elephants really do have memorable memories.

We all know the saying: an elephant never forgets. And it’s true, in a way: An acute memory with long-term recall is one of the fundamental elephant characteristics that helps wild elephants survive the tough conditions of Africa.

Elephant herds are led by matriarch elephants who store knowledge that helps them find food and water when they need it most, or avoid potential areas that have been dangerous in the past — and they retain this knowledge for decades.

Elephants also recognize and remember the locations of as many as 30 other elephants at a time. (Meanwhile, I can lose track of my 3 friends in a crowd in 3 minutes… and where did I put my keys again this morning?)

Elephant matriarchs use their remarkable recall to lead their herds to food and water. (Photo by Paolo.)

Elephant matriarchs use their remarkable recall to lead their herds to food and water. (Photo by Paolo.)

Unfortunately, the elephants with the best and most valuable memories for their herd are also the most at risk — older elephants are the ones most targeted for poaching, because of their larger tusks. When a matriarch is killed, her knowledge of how to secure her herd’s survival dies with her.

Are You Smarter Than an Elephant?

I don’t know about you, but I eagerly await that future day when we discover that elephants can learn how to beat us at checkers, do our philosophy homework, and/or discover the key to cold fusion.

Til then, it’s clear that we still have a lot to learn about elephants — and that there are even things we can learn from elephants.

But what if we never get that chance?

Let’s do everything we can to make sure elephants still have a safe home in the wild, a home where they can roam free and thrive and solve complex algebraic equations whenever they want. It’s the right thing to do.

For more ele-fantastic fun facts, check out this epic Buzzfeed list , or this longer read about elephant intelligence from the Scientific American.

[Credits: Cover photo by Joaquim Huber.]

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Audre is a writer, elephant advocate, and brand-new cyclist who's training to bike 300 miles in September to raise funds for the African Wildlife Foundation. Yes, she really is that crazy about elephants! Learn more and donate today.
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