14 Amazing Things You Didn’t Know Elephants Could Do
These majestic animals are smarter than you think. For Save the Elephant Day on April 16, learn why they’re so important to their environment—and planet Earth itself.
Elephants can create waterholes and footpaths
As the largest land mammal, elephants put their extraordinary size and strength to good use, shaping the land around them to suit their needs—and other animals’ as well. “Elephants will use their tusks, their feet, and their trunks to dig ‘wallows’ that will fill with water from rainfall or from groundwater, and these waterholes become water sources for not only elephants but other animals that share the habitat,” says Todd Montgomery, outreach manager for The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. “The footpaths are created through repeated use and many elephant feet treading through.”
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They can dig for salt
Elephants also use their massive brain power to figure out how to best achieve their nutritional requirements, even discovering how to mine for salt. “Elephants need to ingest salt to help them stay hydrated,” Montgomery says. “When they aren’t getting enough salt from the plant matter they are eating, they will dig to utilize salt stored in the soil.” Elephants have even been known to venture into underground caves to seek salt, such as Kitum Cave at the base of Mount Elgon in Kenya.
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They can eat for 12 to 18 hours a day
Elephant’s huge size—around six tonnes for African savanna elephants and four tonnes for Asian elephants—requires a huge amount of sustenance. As herbivores, they eat all kinds of plants: grass, leaves, woody shrubs, flowers, and fruits. According to National Geographic, they spend 12 to 18 hours a day eating, and can consume over 300 pounds of food a day: That’s over 50 tonnes per year. Unfortunately, elephants also eat crops, causing them to come into conflict with humans. But humane efforts to keep elephants away from farms (including employing bees, which elephants don’t like, as a perimeter) and keep farms out of elephants’ way, are ongoing.
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They can form tight-knit matriarchal groups
Elephants are highly social creatures who bond tightly in complex, female-focused family units that are critical to elephant health and behaviour. “Each herd consists of several related individuals, and the matriarch is usually the mother, grandmother, aunt, or great-aunt to most of the elephants in the herd. It is her job to direct the movement and actions of the herd,” Montgomery says. “The entire herd is involved in watching after and teaching young elephants, and the herd members work together to protect one another.” Male elephants usually leave the herd as adolescents, but sometimes form bachelor groups of their own.
They can display empathy
Elephants’ intelligence and sociability lead them to display what seem to be actual emotions, challenging the notion that animals don’t have feelings. “They show extraordinary compassion and empathy towards each other, and have many things in common with us,” says Frank Pope, CEO of the conservation and research group Save the Elephants. “They have deep relationships with their family members, they celebrate the birth of babies, take care of their young like we do, and nurture and reassure them into their teens. They also mourn their dead, returning to grieve where friends or family died.”
They can remember their environment
“The elephant brain is a marvelous bit of nature,” Montgomery says. “There is no doubt that elephants do have a remarkable capacity for memory, and that memory serves them well in their natural habitats when it comes to locating food and water and avoiding danger.” In one study, elephant herds with older matriarchs fared better during a drought than those with younger matriarchs, possibly because the older females remembered how they survived a past drought. Elephants can also pass on the knowledge they’ve gathered from generation to generation, Pope says. The spectacular memory of elephants isn’t just an animal myth, however.
They can remember individuals
Elephants can also recall other elephants they’ve met before. “Scientists believe that elephants can remember one another even after having not seen on another for years,” Montgomery says. Because of this, elephants may take in what appear to be “outsiders” to the herd. “There have been recorded instances of elephant herds accepting ‘outsiders,’ thought that term may be a bit misleading,” he says. Because of their ability to remember others, “what looks like an outsider to us may not be an outsider at all to that elephant herd.”
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They can use their tusks as tools
All African elephants, male and female, have tusks; but only male Asian elephants have them. These tools are used for a variety of purposes. “Tusks are used to scrape bark from trees that the elephants then eat,” Montgomery says. “They use their tusks to help them break and tear down branches to access the leaves. Their tusks are also very handy when it comes to digging those wallows [for water]. And they can use their tusks for defense when necessary.” They can be right-tusked or left-tusked, similar to human handedness, with the dominant tusk usually more worn down than the other—one study showed more elephants are righties. But elephants’ magnificent tusks also put them in danger from ivory poachers, which has caused fewer big-tusked offspring: Because those with bigger tusks are more likely to be killed, they aren’t able to pass on their genes. As a result, elephants’ tusks are getting smaller—or are no longer there at all.
They can create their own sunscreen
Yes, animals can get sunburned, but elephants have found an ingenious way to protect themselves. “Elephants will cover themselves with dust, dirt, and mud to protect their skin from the sun and from biting insects,” Montgomery says. “Often, elephants will splash water all over their back and sides, then throw a layer of dirt on, creating a nice even layer of elephant sunscreen.” Interestingly, recent research notes that the deep wrinkles in elephants’ skin, which retain the water and mud, are actually used to help keep them cool and free from sun damage.
They can recognize themselves in mirrors
A landmark study showed they can recognize themselves in a mirror, as opposed to thinking they are looking at another elephant—something few other animals can do. Humans can’t even recognize themselves until around 18 months old. “It’s not surprising that elephants appear to show a high level of self-awareness in intelligence testing,” Pope says. “These studies could have profound implications for our understanding of the species and how we can protect elephants for the long-term in Africa”—and worldwide. Knowing that elephants are sentient and capable of high-order thinking may give more support to their rights and protection. This is how smart elephants really are.
They can communicate over long distances
“Elephants can communicate over long distances, for example by sending low-frequency alarm calls, inaudible to humans, if they encounter danger,” Pope says. But elephants don’t just hear footsteps and vocalizations from far away: They can actually feel them through their feet. “Recent research by Oxford University and Save the Elephants has shown that elephant behaviour can also be determined through seismic vibrations they create, generated through their feet during normal movements, and also through low-frequency vocalizations, known as rumbles,” Pope says. “This study marks a new phase in trying to understand the nature of the vibrations elephants produce and how they might be used by elephants themselves, especially in changing and fragile environments.” Elephants’ hearing is better than their eyesight, which is why they startle so easily.
They can learn to avoid poachers
Elephants don’t only remember their environment—they can learn from and adapt to it, too. Research has shown that elephant herds moved their range away from poaching hot spots, especially if they suffered the loss of their matriarch at the hands of poachers. In addition, “our research has shown that elephants move more at night in areas that suffer high levels of poaching—when danger threatens they move at speed in the open almost entirely by night, showing an intelligent adaptability,” Pope says. “We’ve also recently discovered that elephants migrating through at-risk areas will travel in a much straighter line and spend less time foraging in order to safely reach their destination.”
They can beat cancer
Scientists have wondered why these large creatures that live to such an old age aren’t more susceptible to cancer: The more cells you have and the more time for cell turnover you have, the more likely you’d be to experience the cell errors that lead to the disease. Recent research in elephants, though, found a gene that might be protecting these giants from cancer. Instead of repairing damaged cells, this “zombie gene” just kills them off. Scientists note there may be other genetic mechanisms at work to keep elephants from getting cancer as well. Further research into elephants’ natural cancer defenses could help humans treat or even prevent the disease. Elephants can live up to 70 years, which makes them one of the longest living animals in the world.
They can affect the entire ecosystem
Elephants are a crucial part of their environment, and the entire planet. Unfortunately, elephants are under threat: Asian elephants are endangered, and African elephants are listed as vulnerable. “Elephants are a ‘keystone species’—they are giant gardeners, transforming the landscapes in which they live and playing an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of their ecosystems,” Pope says. “When forest elephants eat, they create gaps in the vegetation for new plants to grow and pathways for smaller animals. In the savanna, elephants also leave dung which is full of seeds and once deposited, grow into new bushes and trees, boosting the health of the ecosystem.” Without elephants, these ecosystems would be changed forever, he says.
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