13 Facts to Change the Way You See Elephants

A baby elephant and an adult elephant stand with trunks wrapped around each other

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Elephants captivate our hearts and imaginations. They astound us with their size and strength, such a contrast with their gentle nature and delicate touch. Despite their long history alongside humans, we have only recently begun to truly understand and explore the internal workings of these beautiful creatures.

Do elephants cry? Do they really have memorials for their dead? And importantly, was the Loch Ness Monster really an elephant?! We explore the lives of elephants and discover just how much we can relate to these huge, intellectually complex animals.

Learn more about the complex emotional and social lives of elephants, as well as some of their most extraordinary abilities.

Elephants never forget a friend, or an enemy

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The memory of elephants is legendary, and for good reason. Elephants remember other elephants and individual humans for years — even decades —after they last saw them.

In one example, two elephants named Jenny and Shirley recognized each other after 23 years apart, even though they only knew each other for a few months. "Carol Buckley at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn. ... reports that in 1999 resident elephant Jenny became anxious and could hardly be contained when introduced to newcomer Shirley, an Asian elephant. As the animals checked one another out with their trunks, Shirley, too, became animated and the two seemingly old friends had what appeared to be an emotional reunion. 'There was this euphoria,' sanctuary founder Buckley says. 'Shirley started bellowing, and then Jenny did, too. Both trunks were checking out each other's scars. I've never experienced anything that intense without it being aggression.'"

After doing some research, the caretakers found that these two elephants had been together for only a few months in a circus more than two decades earlier, but their memory of each other was crystal clear — based on how excited they were to reunite.

Elephants can also remember individual humans, including those who were kind and those who were not. In fact, elephants may even have a special alert call for "human" and use it as a way to alert family members to potential danger from people.

Elephants remember the way to watering holes even after a long span of time or distance. They also can remember the way to alternative watering or feeding areas should the need arise. This is one of the reasons it's crucial for younger elephants to spend plenty of time with older family members, so the knowledge is passed down and they'll be able to find their own way when they are adults.

Elephants can distinguish different human languages

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Not only are elephants astonishingly good at identifying and remembering individuals, but they can also identify different human languages, even the sex and age of the speaker.

In a study published in the journal PNAS, researchers played back the voices of speakers from two different ethnic groups — the Maasai, a group known to kill elephants, and the Kamba, a group that does not. When the elephants heard the Maasai voices, they were significantly more likely to act defensively by grouping tightly together and smelling the air to investigate. What's more, the researchers found the elephants also reacted to the age and sex of the speaker, becoming agitated when hearing adult male Maasai voices versus those of boys or females.

"Considering the long history and often pervasive predatory threat associated with humans across the globe, it is likely that abilities to precisely identify dangerous subcategories of humans on the basis of subtle voice characteristics could have been selected for in other cognitively advanced animal species," the researchers wrote.

The skill of elephants to interpret language goes further. One elephant even learned to mimic words in Korean! He became so skilled at "matching Korean formants and fundamental frequency in such detail that Korean native speakers can readily understand and transcribe the imitations." You can hear audio samples of the words the elephant can speak. Whether or not he knows he is speaking Korean versus another language is questionable, but he certainly knows he is speaking human. The researchers theorize that because his primary social contact while growing up was with humans, he learned to mimic words as a form of social bonding.

Elephants can hear through their feet

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Elephants have a great sense of hearing and can send vocalizations a long distance. The species makes a variety of sounds, including snorts, roars, cries and more. But they also specialize in rumbles and are able to pick up sounds in a more unusual way.

While trumpeting may be heard a good distance away, elephants can also communicate in a low rumble that can travel as far as 6 miles, and what's more, the elephant receiving the call picks it up through its feet.

Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, a biologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, found that the vocalizations and foot stomps of elephants resonate at a frequency other elephants can detect through the ground. Enlarged ear bones as well as sensitive nerve endings in their feet and trunks allow elephants to pick up these "underground" or infrasonic messages.

Stanford News reported, "The researchers wanted to find out if elephants would respond to recordings played through the ground, so they installed seismic transmitters at a tourist facility in Zimbabwe where eight trained, young elephants were housed."

"We think they're sensing these underground vibrations through their feet," said O'Connell-Rodwell. "Seismic waves could travel from their toenails to the ear via bone conduction, or through somatosensory receptors in the foot similar to ones found in the trunk. We think it may be a combination of both."

So when an elephant stomps when agitated, there's a purpose greater than just warning those in the immediate area — the elephant may also be warning other elephants many miles away. And when an elephant rumbles a call, it could be intended for family members far out of sight.

The ability to detect such seismic vibrations also helps elephants survive. National Geographic reported that long-distance communication can help keep family members in touch even when they are spread over great distances to find food and water in times of scarcity. It can also provide other cues to danger.

"It's believed that elephants can hear storms as much as 100 to 150 miles (160 to 240 kilometers) away," Michael Garstang, a meteorologist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, told National Geographic. "When culling was being done in some of the parks, the elephants could clearly detect and identify the thump-thump-thump sound of the helicopter blades from 80 to 90 miles (130 to 140 kilometers) away, identify it as danger, and take off in the opposite direction."

The video below from KQED's Deep Look series shows elephants at the Etosha National Park in Namibia using their feet to "exchange information by emitting low-frequency sounds that travel dozens of miles under the ground on the savannah."

Elephants are excellent swimmers

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It may not come as a surprise that elephants enjoy playing in the water. They are famous for splashing playfully and showering themselves and others with sprays from their trunks. But it might be a surprise to learn that these huge animals are also quite good at swimming.

Elephants have enough buoyancy to stay at the surface and use their powerful legs to paddle. They use their trunks as a snorkel when crossing deep water and so are able to breath normally even when submerged. Thanks to their strong legs and built-in snorkel, elephants have been known to travel long distances in this manner.

Swimming is a necessary skill for crossing rivers and lakes when traveling to find food. Some experts also speculate that these swimming skills are what allowed Asian elephants to get from southeast India to Sri Lanka.

There's even a theory that the Loch Ness Monster was actually an elephant from a traveling circus. Paleontologist and painter Neil Clark noticed that the famous photograph from 1934 looks suspiciously like the top of an elephant's head with the trunk extended up out of the water. "The reason why we see elephants in Loch Ness is that circuses used to go along the road to Inverness and have a little rest at the side of the loch and allow the animals to go and have a little swim around," Clark told CBS News. (But don't worry, all you Nessy believers; the theory hasn't been proven.)

Elephants aid their scared, sick and dying

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Elephants are highly social and highly intelligent creatures, and they demonstrate behaviors we humans easily recognize as compassion, kindness and altruism.

Just to prove the point, researchers did a study that showed when an elephant becomes distressed, other elephants nearby will respond with calls and touches intended to console the individual. It's a behavior so far only witnessed in humans and apes, canids and corvids.

Not only will elephants comfort others in distress, but they'll also care for their sick and injured. Scientific American writes:

"Some scientists studying wild elephants have argued that, in addition to cooperating for survival’s sake, the creatures are capable of genuine empathy. Poole recalls, for example, one elephant flinching as another stretched her trunk towards an electric fence; it was fortunately inactive at the time but had been live in the past. Elephants often refuse to leave their sick and injured behind, even if the ailing animal is not a direct relative. [Joyce Poole, one of the world’s foremost elephant experts and co-founder of the charity ElephantVoices] once observed three young male elephants struggle to revive a dying matriarch, lifting her body with their tusks to get her back on her feet."

Elephants can suffer from PTSD

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We now know that elephants are sensitive souls, with strong bonds to their family members, a need for comfort and a long memory. So it should be no surprise that we've seen symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder among elephants who go through a tragedy, such as witnessing a family member being killed by poachers. Calves orphaned by poachers will show PTSD-like symptoms even decades later. Elephants released from abusive situations show symptoms of PTSD long after they've found safety in a sanctuary.

"Events or 'stressors' that underlie the development of PTSD include threat of death; physical abuse; deprivation; torture; isolation; forced incarceration (captivity); and witnessing the loss, death or threat of death to a loved one. All elephants in captivity have experienced most, if not all, of these events," write researchers G.A. Bradshaw and Lorin Lindner.

This is one reason why culls and poaching have a profound impact on surviving elephants. “A death of an individual has an impact, on the family, within the community,” trans-species psychologist Bradshaw told Here and Now. “But when that keeps happening over and over and over and over, in increasing numbers, you start to get the entire fabric of the community, of the population, of the net, falling apart. You have a sustained psychological trauma, and then you do not have any of the traditional healing structures of the elephant family and culture.”

Another study has shown that when selective individuals are killed in a cull or by poachers, young elephants lose vital social information that would have been passed down by the adults.

Elephants need their elders

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African elephants live in a matriarchal society. A herd is led by the most knowledgeable female, usually the oldest because she's had the longest time to gather vital knowledge such as where to go for food and water and knowledge about how to respond to a variety of dangers, even those that haven't been a threat for decades.

The herd is made up of mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters and sons who stay with the group until they're old enough to become troublesome and need to go hang out with other bachelors. Elephants stay with their herd for life or, if there's a need to leave, they at least stay for more than a decade to learn enough information to survive. This includes social information. This information passed down from elders is vital.

A study shows that when the elders are taken away, this key information is never passed down and those young elephants never learn appropriate responses to elephant calls or perhaps other cues.

Dr. Graeme Shannon played calls to two elephant herds — one affected by culling and one not. The calls were of familiar and unfamiliar elephants. The herd that had not experienced culling reacted normally, bunching together defensively when hearing an unfamiliar elephant and staying relaxed when hearing a familiar voice. But the herd that had experienced culling in the 1970s and 1980s reacted randomly, without any pattern at all.

Research finds that Asian elephants, however, are less hierarchical than their African counterparts. Researchers discovered little dominance based on age or gender when studying Asian elephant groups. This difference in social organization in the two elephant species could be due to the varied habitats. In Africa, conditions are harsher so the wisdom of an older elephant is more valuable and early maternal bonds may explain why female elephants lead the hierarchy. In Asia, predators are few and resources are more plentiful, so there's not as much of a need for strong leadership.

The importance of social life among elephants is backed up by another study, which aimed to understand some of the effects of captivity and the initial results were surprising. Researchers looked at how much space elephants had, but they also took into consideration what they call the "Space Experience," which accounts for the different ways individual elephants see and use the space around them. As reported by the Washington Post:

"...the researchers found that the quality of the space was 'extremely important.' Diverse enrichment activities and feeding methods — such as hanging or hiding food rather than plopping hay on the ground — were more closely linked to signs of positive welfare, particularly reproductive health. Hard floors were linked to musculo-skeletal and foot problems, as well as less lying down among African elephants, which the authors surmised could lead to sleep deprivation."

Cheryl Meehan, a research associate for the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis and executive director of the Animal Welfare, Research and Education Institute, was the lead author of the study’s overview, and she said another key finding was the effect of disrupting social groups.

“The physical, actual move can be stressful, but [the researchers] also point to the disruption in social life with respect to social bonds with elephants they were living with and also human caretakers,” she told the Washington Post. “So the social piece is really deeply woven into the question about elephant welfare.”

An elephant's trunk is critical to its survival

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Just as passed-down knowledge is important to survival, so is an elephant's trunk. An individual simply can't live without it.

An elephant's trunk is a fusion of its upper lip and its nose. Filled with more than 100,000 muscles, this huge appendage is both powerful and extremely dexterous. An elephant can use its trunk to rip a limb from a tree or to pick up a single blade of grass.

Because elephants typically eat up to 440 pounds of food a day, they have to be able to forage and eat small vegetation. Elephants can eat even small grains by forming a joint with their trunk to pile up grains. They crush the grains so hard that it molds into a form that they are then able to pick up and eat.

The elephant's trunk is also used for drinking. An elephant can suck up as much as two gallons of water at a time in the trunk, then blow it into its mouth. Or, if it's bath time, spray itself down.

With such a big trunk, you might think an elephant has a great sense of smell, and you'd be right. Elephants have one of the most acute senses of smell among animals. According to LiveScience, "In a study of 13 mammals, African elephants were found to be superior sniffers, possessing the largest number of genes associated with smell — five times as many as humans and more than twice that of dogs."

An elephant can smell water from 12 miles away, and can reportedly smell a storm as far as 150 miles away. According to a 2019 study, Asian elephants can even "count" by smell, using their noses to determine which of two sealed buckets contains more food.

The sense of smell is so important to an elephant that it has played a role in encouraging them to devise tools. Researchers once thought elephants couldn't create tools, but it turns out the studies were flawed. They provided sticks for elephants to use, which an elephant would have to grasp with its trunk. But that requires the elephant to give up part of its keen sense of smell and touch.

"Asking an elephant to reach for a piece of food with a stick is like asking a blindfolded man to locate and open a door with his ear," writes Scientific American.

An elephant named Kandula was spotted using a bucket to grab food out of his reach, showing that elephants can independently engineer tools to get what they want.

In addition to being practical for eating, drinking and bathing, the trunk is also important for social interactions. Elephants use their trunks to hug, caress and comfort other elephants — and baby elephants even suck their trunks like a human baby sucks a thumb.

"[S]o far, there is no other appendage in the entire animal world known to be as specialized as an elephant’s trunk," writes the Maryland Zoo.

The elephant's closest relative is the rock hyrax

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We know elephants are unique, but it might surprise you to learn that the elephant's closest living relative is the rock hyrax, a small, furry herbivore native to Africa and the Middle East. Manatees and dugongs are also closely related to the elephant. (And you thought you had a weird family.)

The manatee, the rock hyrax and the elephant share a common ancestor, Tethytheria, which died out more than 50 million years ago. That's been long enough for the animals to travel down very different evolutionary paths. Though they look and act radically different, they remain closely related.

Despite initial appearances, hyraxes still have a few physical traits in common with elephants. These include tusks that grow from their incisor teeth (versus most mammals, which develop tusks from their canine teeth), flattened nails on the tips of their digits, and several similarities among their reproductive organs.

Elephants honor the bones of their dead

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It's difficult to select a word to describe this behavior, but elephants seem to express more than simply an interest when they come across the bones of their dead. Is it honoring, mourning, remembering? It's impossible to say. But considering the long, detailed memory that elephants possess and their family bonds, it's likely that when elephants touch the bones of another elephant, the feeling is something akin to mourning.

Scientific American writes, "When elephants encounter an elephant skeleton, they slow down, approach it cautiously, and caress the bones with their trunk and the bottoms of their sensitive padded feet. Elephants do not show the same interest in the remains of other species. In one experiment elephants spent twice as much time investigating an elephant skull as those of either a rhinoceros and buffalo and six times longer probing ivory than a piece of wood. [Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants] has witnessed elephants kicking dirt over skeletons and covering them with palm fronds."

Photographer John Chaney writes of his photograph on National Geographic Your Shot of an elephant caressing the tusk of an elephant carcass:

"We came across this elephant whose corpse was overcome by vultures and jackals. From a distance we heard and then saw another elephant approaching at a fast pace. She was successful at chasing away the predators and then very slowly and with much empathy wrapped her trunk around the deceased elephants tusk. She stayed in this position for several hours guarding her friend."

The legends of elephant graveyards may be more myth than reality, but it certainly is fact that when elephants come back to the site of a fallen family member, they express deep emotion.

Elephants can cry

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It's somewhat controversial to say elephants weep and laugh. Critics say we risk anthropomorphizing behaviors that may have other explanations. However, it seems that there's plenty of evidence that elephants do cry tears of emotion.

One such famous example is Raju, the elephant that cried when rescuers freed him from a life of torture. We reported last year, "The elephant has been forced to endure a life of painful shackles and handouts from tourists; mostly subsisting on plastic and paper for food. The rescue became even more emotional after Raju began crying while officials removed his bonds."

Discovery News writes, "[Raju's rescue] isn't the first time an elephant has been seen weeping after a traumatic event. Last year, a newborn elephant calf at Shendiaoshan Wild Animal Nature Reserve in eastern China reportedly cried inconsolably for five hours after being stomped on by his mother, which then rejected the little elephant. The calf, named Zhuang-zhuang, was later 'adopted' by a keeper, according to the news site Metro. Elephant tears, as for human ones, often appear linked to feelings of sorrow."

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, writes in an opinion piece for LiveScience: "[W]hile scientists are not 100-percent certain, solid scientific research supports the view that elephants and other nonhuman animals weep as part of an emotional response... And, let's not forget that many 'surprises' have been discovered in the emotional lives of animals, including laughing rats and dogs and empathic chickens, mice and rats — all published in outstanding peer-reviewed professional journals."

Elephants use dirt as sunscreen

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On a lighter note, let's point out how elephants like to play in the dirt, and for good reason! Though their hide looks tough, elephants have sensitive skin that can get sunburned.

To counteract the damaging rays of the sun, elephants throw sand on themselves. Adult elephants will also douse youngsters with dust. When coming out of a bath in a river, elephants will often throw mud on themselves as a layer of protection. And when calves are sleeping, adults will often stand over them to cast shade and protect them from the sun.

As for an elephant sunburn, "Marie Galloway, an elephant keeper at the zoo, can only recall one case," says Smithsonian Magazine. "For a time, about 20 years ago, Shanthi, a female Asian elephant from Sri Lanka who lives at the zoo, had blisters appear on her back, because, unlike the other elephants, she didn’t cover herself with dirt or seek shade. But for the most part, animals seem to have good sense."

Elephants possess some math skills

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Asian elephants may just be one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom when it comes to math.

A study published in the Journal of Ethology shows that Asian elephants are able to process numbers in a more complex manner similar to humans. Researchers from the the Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science trained a 14-year-old Asian elephant named Authai at the Ueno Zoo in Japan to use a computer touchscreen panel.

Authai was shown side-by-side images of various fruits that had different quantities from zero to 10 and trained to pick the image that had more fruit. The fruits were not all the same size to ensure that Authai would select her answer based on quantity and not image size. Authai chose correctly 181 out of 271 times for a success rate of 66.8%.

"We found that her performance was unaffected by distance, magnitude, or the ratios of the presented numerosities, but consistent with observations of human counting, she required a longer time to respond to comparisons with smaller distances," wrote lead study author Naoko Irie. "This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting."

It should be noted that only Asian elephants possess this ability and not the two African species. Irie believes that because the species split 7.6 million years ago that it's "highly probable that each developed different cognitive abilities."