7 Behaviors That Prove Elephants Are Incredibly Smart

iStock
iStock

Elephants are exceptionally smart creatures. They have the largest brain of any land animal, and three times as many neurons as humans. While many of these neurons exist to control the elephant’s large and dexterous body, these creatures have demonstrated their impressive mental capabilities time and time again. Here, a few interesting findings about the intelligence of elephants.

1. THEY CAN IDENTIFY LANGUAGES.

Researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK have discovered that African elephants can distinguish differences in human gender, age, and ethnicity purely by the sound of someone’s voice. If the voice belongs to a person who is more likely to pose a threat, the elephants switch into defensive mode.

To test this, researchers found two Kenyan men from different ethnic groups, the Maasai and the Kamba. The Maasai have a history of killing wild elephants, while the Kamba do not. The researchers recorded the two men saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” in their different languages, and played these recordings to elephant family groups at Amboseli National Park in Kenya. When the elephants heard the Maasai, they showed signs of fear, huddling together and moving away from the voice. But the same phrase spoken by a Kamba man evoked no reaction from the elephants. "The ability to distinguish between Maasai and Kamba men delivering the same phrase in their own language suggests that elephants can discriminate between different languages," said the study’s co-author Graeme Shannon, a visiting fellow in psychology at the University of Sussex.

What’s more, the same recordings made by women and children of either tribe left the elephants unfazed, suggesting they can not only distinguish between ethnic groups, but between age and gender as well, knowing that men are the most likely to pose a threat, especially Maasai men.

2. THEY CAN USE TOOLS.

In 2010, a 7-year-old Asian elephant named Kandula impressed researchers by utilizing tools from his surroundings to reach fruit that had been strategically placed just beyond his reach. After watching the fruit, tantalizingly, for a few days, Kandula had an "aha moment." He found a large plastic block, rolled it over, and stepped on it, propping himself up just far enough to reach the fruit with his trunk. While Kandula’s “aha moment” didn’t happen immediately, it stuck with him. He repeated the trick with other tools, and even figured out how to stack blocks to reach even higher.

Similarly, elephants have been known to use sticks to scratch themselves in areas they couldn’t otherwise reach, and fashion fly swatters out of branches or grass. Others have been observed digging a hole to reach drinking water, and then plugging the hole with a ball formed from chewed bark to prevent the water from evaporating, thus saving it for later use.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND HUMAN BODY LANGUAGE.

Researchers recently observed evidence that elephants might understand human pointing. They tested this by pointing at food hidden in one of two identical containers, and observing which container a group of captive African elephants approached. Without any previous training, the elephants picked the correct container almost 68 percent of the time. That’s only about 5 percent lower than how one-year-old human babies perform on similar tests. When researchers stood between the containers and did not point, the elephants approached them randomly.

4. THEY SHOW EMPATHY.

A recent study [PDF] observed Asian elephants comforting one another when distressed. The elephants in the study used both physical contact and vocal sounds as forms of comfort, stroking one another with their trunks and emitting small chirps. The study concluded this behavior is "best classified with similar consolation responses by apes, possibly based on convergent evolution of empathic capacities."

5. THEY MOURN THEIR DEAD.

It would be a stretch to say elephants, or any other animals, understand death in the same way humans do. But elephants have demonstrated fascinating reactions to the deaths of their kind, often displaying what appear to humans as symptoms of grief and mourning. They caress the bones of the dead with their trunks and will stand near the body of the deceased for hours. Sometimes they even try to bury the remains. They don't behave this way toward the remains of other animals. In this powerful photo, taken by John Chaney for National Geographic, a female elephant "very slowly and with much empathy wrapped her trunk around the deceased elephant’s tusk. She stayed in this position for several hours…"

6. THEY MIMIC HUMAN VOICES.

An Asian elephant named Koshik baffled researchers in 2012 when they realized he could say five words in Korean. "If you consider the huge size of the elephant and the long vocal tract and other anatomic differences—for example he has a trunk instead of lips... and a huge larynx—and he is really matching the voice pitch of his trainers, this is really remarkable," said Dr. Angela Stoeger, a lead author of a study about Koshik that appeared in Current Biology. While it is almost certain Koshik doesn’t comprehend the meaning of the words, the researchers believe he began mimicking sound as a way to bond with humans, which were his only form of social contact during his formative years.

7. THEY HAVE EXTRAORDINARY MEMORIES.

You knew this one, but let’s point to some specific examples. Elephants can remember routes to watering holes over incredibly long stretches of time and space. This is necessary for elephants that live in the desert where water is scarce. Research also shows that elephants often form close bonds with companions, and can recognize them even after long periods of separation. Dr. Shermin de Silva, now director of the Uda Walawe Elephant Research Project in Sri Lanka, said in 2011 that “Elephants are able to track one another over large distances by calling to each other and using their sense of smell … Our work shows that they are able to recognize their friends and renew these bonds even after being apart for a long time." In 1999, two elephants named Shirley and Jenny, once companions in a circus, reunited at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee after more than 20 years apart. Their immediate bonding can be seen in the video above, shot during their reunion.

Journey to the Monarch Mosh Pit

iStock/Spondylolithesis
iStock/Spondylolithesis

Each fall, millions of migrating monarchs return to Mexico to wait out winter. The gathering makes Woodstock look like a business conference. Here’s how they get there.

Mosh Pit

In the mountains of central Mexico, the butterflies crowd on the branches of oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a perfect microclimate that prevents the butterflies from getting too hot or cold.

Texas Toast

After winter, the butterflies fly north to Texas in search of milkweed, where they lay their eggs. Many adults will die here; northbound monarchs generally live only three to seven weeks.

Juice Cleanse

One of the reasons monarchs love milkweed? Protection. As caterpillars, they absorb the toxins in the plant, which makes them less tasty to birds.

Connecting Flight

Eventually, a new generation of butterflies will make its way north to Canada. It takes multiple generations of butterflies to reach their final, most northerly destination.

Dine and Dash

On the way, butterflies will eat practically anything. Sure, there’s nectar—but they’ll also slurp the salts in mud.

Catching Air

When fall returns, a new generation of monarchs rides the air currents more than 3000 miles back to Mexico. They navigate by calibrating their body clocks with the position of the sun. (An internal magnetic compass helps them navigate on cloudy days.)

Latitude Adjustment

Monarchs “are one of the few creatures on Earth that can orient themselves both in latitude and longitude,” The New York Times reports—a feat sailors wouldn’t accomplish until the 1700s.

Southern Charm

Miraculously, each generation of southbound monarchs lives up to eight months—six times longer than their northbound descendants. Their longevity might have something to do with a process known as reproductive diapause (which is a fancy way of saying that the insects won’t breed until winter ends).

This Rolling Smart Robot Will Keep Your Cat Company and Help It Exercise, Even When You’re Not Home

Ebo
Ebo

As any true ailurophile knows, cats love to sleep. On average, kitties spend anywhere from 16 to 20 hours of each day napping. But that laziness we often find so charming can sometimes lead to obesity, which can cause some pretty serious health problems for your feline friend. So how do you make sure your cat stays happy and healthy, even when you’re not home? That’s where Ebo comes (or rolls) in.

Ebo is a smart robot designed to keep your cat company and provide them with some much-needed stimulation, especially when you're not around. With more than $90,000 in pledges raised already, Ebo crushed its original $5110 Kickstarter goal, but you can still back the project here, with pledge tiers that start at $159 for a standard EBO and a smart collar that tracks your cat’s activity levels.

The Ebo itself, which is just over two inches tall, connects to Wi-Fi and features an app that allows you to schedule when you want it to start and stop playing with your cat.

When it’s playtime, the tiny robot scans the room to ensure there’s enough space to play safely. Once it makes sure the coast is clear, the robot moves on its own, utilizing an ergonomic design that enables it to wheel in any direction, spin, roll over, or even dance. You also don’t need to worry about keeping your cat’s robot friend charged. If your Ebo happens to be running low on battery, it rolls itself back to its charging station until it’s ready to go again.

According to the designers, Ebo interacts with cats in a way your feline friend understands—through a mix of sound, movement, and light that is always unpredictable. You can even play with your cat through the Ebo with its built-in laser.

The app also allows you to monitor your cat through video. And if they do something cute—as they always do—you can easily snap a photo or shoot a video, edit it, add fun filters, and then share it with others.

The device’s smart collar can be used for up to 30 days on a single charge. Should it get stuck, there’s a safety mode in which it will be released automatically to prevent accidental choking.

If you want an upgrade, there's the Ebo Pro (starting at $199), which features an AI algorithm that analyzes your cat’s mood and motion and adapts for future play.

No matter which Ebo you choose, they all come full of accessories, including decorative soldier, bamboo, onion, or feather caps. And if you order in time, you can snag a model decked out in a Santa hat.

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