Weâ€™ve all heard the phrase an elephant never forgets and while this may be a slight exaggeration, elephants have exceptional cognitive functioning to go with their massive brain size.
Elephants have the largest brain size among land mammals. While this is significant, the main reason for their reputation as one of the smartest mammals around is due to their exceptional temporal lobe functioning, which, relative to body size, is the largest of any animal on earth.
The mammalian temporal lobe is responsible for cognitive activities such as communication, memory, learning and problem-solving, making the elephant one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
Further study and analysis of elephant brains has found a significantly greater amount of specialized neurons (known as pyramidal neurons, crucial structures in cognitive functioning) compared to humans and at least much cortical neurons as their sapiens cousins.
The structural complexity and sophistication of elephant brains makes them a fascinating subject for scientists to study. Unfortunately, the study of elephants poses a unique set of challengers among researchers, meaning that not a whole lot is known about the nature of elephantine intelligence.
While some progress has been made in the research of visual, auditory, vocal and auditory functions, deeper cognitive analysis of elephants has yet to reach the heights associated with our study of primates and smaller mammals, mainly because their size and range renders analysis far more difficult than other animals kept in captivity.
Additionally, experimenting on smaller animals is a far more affordable affair and the ease with which say mice for instance are bred and housed provides scientists with an ideal platform for repetitive tests in a controlled environment, ensuring the accuracy of the data.
That being said, a number of notable experiments have proven with a high degree of accuracy that elephants are at least as smart as smart as we suspected.
The classic assertion that an elephant never forgets is a good place to start.
Elephants need brilliant memories to navigate complex and wide-ranging migration routes used by their ancestors in the centuries prior, particularly when water is scarce in the dry months.
They are also extremely companion-driven, maintaining close relationships with other members of the herd throughout their lives. Their incredible memory is used in conjunction with their strong sense of smell to keep track of members in the heard, meaning they can recognize each other even after long periods of separation.
One heartwarming story to illustrate their adeptness is that of Shirley and Jenny, two circus elephants who reunited at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee having spent 20 years apart.
In a touching and incredible display of affection, the duo immediately recognized each other and began a typical bonding session often witnessed amongst Asian elephants. You can view the video of their reunion here.
In addition to memory, elephants are also well adept at problem-solving using tools and have been observed on numerous occasion using sticks to scratch themselves in places they otherwise couldnâ€™t reach or fashioning flyswatters to get rid of flies.
Once such case of toolmanship was observed in a 2010 research project in India. A seven-year-old elephant named Kandula had stared at fruit he couldnâ€™t reach for a couple of days before devising a plan to reach the tasty treat.
He found a plastic box, moved it over towards the tree before standing on it with one leg and reaching up with his trunk to pick the fruit from the branch.
What impressed researchers even more is that once first discovered, this behavior became learned and Kandula even began to improve on his initial insight by stacking blocks to reach fruit hanging even higher in the trees.
Furthermore, there is research to suggest that an Elephantâ€™s auditory response is sensitive enough to decipher different human languages. They can also glean a humanâ€™s individual characteristics just from hearing an individualâ€™s voice, determining whether or not they are a threat.
Researchers tested this hypothesis in the Amboseli National Park, finding two members of native Kenyan tribes, the Kamba and the Maasai for a series of tests. The Kamba have generally got on well with the animals in the past while the Maasai are known for killing wild elephants.
In one of the tests, researchers got the two men to utter the phrase: â€ślook, look over there. A group of elephants is comingâ€ť while watching how the group of elephants reacted.
The results were astonishing. When the Kamba man spoke, the elephantâ€™s reactions were mooted, with none of them paying too much attention to the man. When the Maasai spoke, however, the elephants huddled together and displayed signs of fear, leading scientist to conclude that elephants are able to distinguish characteristics of human language like pitch and intonation.
The above examples provide more than enough evidence that elephants are of above average intelligence and may be one of the smartest animals on earth. Research into their behavior, however, is limited because of a number of factors which means we may not know much more about their cognitive abilities any time soon.
Until then, our focus should be on the conservation of this magnificent animal.