How Smart Are Elephants Really?

There's a reason behind the old adage, "an elephant never forgets." Read on to learn more about these brilliant, beautiful creatures.

Elephants in safari park in Kenya AfricaBlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock

Sure your dog is smart. But there’s dog-smart, and then there’s, well, elephant-smart. For example, if you hold a mirror up to your dog, he may bark or even try to play with his reflection. That’s because dogs as a species aren’t capable of self-awareness. But elephants are; they are one of a very few species of animal that can look in the mirror and realize they’re seeing themselves. As amazing as that is, pachyderms also hold the honor of being one of the even fewer species that can recognize their bodies as separate from surrounding physical objects, as suggested by a 2017 study out of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

For that study, elephant intelligence researchers had elephants step onto a rubber mat, pick up a stick from the mat, then pass the stick to a person standing in front of them. The elephants were divided into two groups:

  • For Group 1, the stick was attached to the mat with a rope, which meant the elephant wouldn’t be able to pass the stick without stepping off the mat. The researchers hypothesized that only an animal with a sense of his body in space would be able to figure out that it was necessary to step off the mat.
  • For Group 2, the stick wasn’t attached, which meant the elephant could pass the stick even while remaining on the mat.

As it turned out, the elephants in Group 1 stepped off the mat significantly more often than the elephants in Group 2. That means they were capable of recognizing their own bodies as obstacles to the task at hand—passing the stick. That keen level of self-awareness is so rare in the animal kingdom, we don’t generally see it even in humans before the age of two, points out one of the researchers, Josh Plotnik, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International.

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet,” states the lead author of the Cambridge study, Rachel Dale, a PhD candidate at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria. In addition to self-awareness, elephants demonstrate complicated decision-making skills, both alone and in cooperation with other members of their herd, with whom they communicate using a combination of “gentle chirps, thunderous trumpets, and low-frequency rumbles…as well as nudges, kicks, and visual signals such as a tilt of the head or flap of the ear,” according to Scientific American. They can be seen “deliberating” amongst themselves prior to initiating a group action. and afterward, they can be seen celebrating by lifting their heads high, clanging tusks together, and intertwining their trunks. All of this suggests more than mere mental acuity, but actual empathy in elephants. Find out what other facts you may have had wrong about different animals.

But if there’s any doubt, elephants have been observed helping those who are injured by bringing them food and water, grieving for family members who have died, and burying their dead. Elephants are even capable of understanding what “pointing means,” which is an important milestone in child development, and although some dogs understand it, many otherwise intelligent animals, including chimpanzees, do not appear to. But as smart as elephants are, there’s one thing they can’t do. Read on to find out what that is along with 45 other amazing facts about your favorite animals.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.