Five unbelievable habits of elephants

From avenging their dead to mimicking human speech, elephants get up to all sorts of things you'd never expect

Jo Barrow
Tuesday 10 December 2013 13:49

It's even harder to believe that wild elephant populations are under threat once you realise all the amazing things elephants can do for themselves.

Elephants use pharmaceuticals

Deprived of the animal kingdom’s equivalent of Boots, Elephants have instead displayed incredible intelligence in foraging their natural environment for cures and remedies to ailments. There’s a specific word for this: zoopharmacognosy –an animal’s knowledge of medicine, and Elephants have a PhD in it. They often eat dirt (geophagy) to neutralise toxins from plants they’ve eaten, and induce labour using the Boraginaceace tree. Recent research has even discovered that the South African elephant fought off extinction with the help of Ganoderma – a mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine as an anti-cancer and anti-viral agent. People who live near these elephants even boil elephant poo and drink it, much as we would drink herbal tea for its health benefits.

Elephants avenge their dead

We’ve already mentioned how elephants bury their dead, but what’s altogether more impressive is that they also avenge their dead. Growing up in a complex family-like social system, Elephants are relatively civilised creatures. Baby elephants grow up alongside their parents, and communicate constantly even when they’re adults. So far, so good – but what happens when poachers kill one, two or twenty members of the pack? Well, then they get angry – very angry. Poaching and hunting have interfered in Elephant society so much that now people are reporting lone, bezerk elephants looking to avenge their loved ones. They’re basically Liam Neeson in Taken – except they’re 4m tall and weigh 7,000kg.

Elephants are the ultimate babysitters

How many people can you keep an eye on at one time? If you’ve ever had to look after children, you’ll know that any more than three, and suddenly you’re losing them left right and centre, one’s teetering on the edge of a pond and the other one’s disappeared half way up a tree and is in a tense stand-off with an overly protective squirrel. The government’s even legislated against our incompetence at childcare and nursery ratios stand at one adult for every four children – and even that’s pushing it. Elephants, however, don’t have that problem. Elephants can keep track of up to thirty family members at any one time – regardless of how far away they are! They manage this by creating an intricate mental map of where everyone is, by tracking their urine scent.

Elephants have learned to mimic human voices

Koshik is a male Asian elephant living in a zoo in South Korea. What makes him remarkable is that he has learned to mimic the sound of five different Korean words. By putting his trunk in his mouth, he can make the sounds of the words for “hello” “sit down” “no” “lie down” and “good”. Although they’re not entirely sure of why Koshik has developed this unique ability, researchers think it might be because of Koshik’s lonely start in life – as the only elephant at his zoo for five years in his youth, he adapted his vocalisations to form stronger social bonds with their keepers.

Elephants understand how to point

It doesn’t seem like a huge deal – but it is. Recent research has discovered that elephants understand pointing without being trained to recognise it. Anyone with a cat or dog will know the frustration of pointing in a direction, only to have your beloved pet stare at your finger in blank incomprehension, utterly missing the point. Scientists believe that the wild animals have succeeded where countless domesticated animals and monkeys have failed because of their complex social system, which requires them to recognise unspoken signals. Scientists believe this means the animals are cognitively much more like us than previously realised.

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