Understanding elephants improves conservation efforts

Baby elephant interacting with adult elephant in water (© DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Recent research suggests that social interaction can help elephants cope with stress. Above, Asian elephants play in India. (© DeAgostini/Getty Images)

An elephant’s brain is roughly three times the size of a human’s brain. But how well does an elephant use all those neurons?

U.S. researchers are investigating that question and other mysteries of the world’s largest land mammal. Recent studies analyze how elephants solve problems and interact socially.

“What we’re looking for is individual difference in elephants — more or less, personality,” Sateesh Venkatesh, an elephant researcher working at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, told Smithsonian Magazine. “Do different elephants react differently to a novel object — to something that’s new, that they haven’t seen?”

At the National Zoo, that new object is a plastic pipe stuffed with apples. In one recent test Venkatesh conducted along with Smithsonian and Hunter College scientists, one elephant held the pipe between his tusks and found the fruit with his trunk. Another left the pipe on the ground while retrieving the apples.

Better understanding how elephants think and behave can help inform conservation efforts. Elephants are endangered and face threats from poaching and habitat loss.

Line of elephants on dirt path, with cloud-topped mountain in background (© Ben Curtis/AP Images)
A herd of elephants walks in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in 2012. Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, looms in the distance. (© Ben Curtis/AP Images)

At the University of Pennsylvania, a student researched how data mapping tools can help track elephants and prevent poaching. And the Elephant Listening Project at Cornell University partners with Conservation Metrics, a California tech company, to use artificial intelligence to listen to elephants that may be in danger from illegal hunting.

In a study published in July, researchers analyzed the stress levels of elephants who survived losing their mothers. Researchers learned that orphaned elephants grouped with elephants of a similar age had lower stress levels, suggesting peers can help orphans recover.

“Our findings are hopeful for surviving orphans who still have other family members, and especially a healthy network of same-aged friends,” Jenna Parker, a National Science Foundation funded–researcher and one of the study’s authors said. “Preserving bonds within social wildlife populations may be one key to making them more resilient.”