Elephants are fairly placid except when threatened or when males enter a rut-like condition known as musth. When alarmed they trumpet and flap their ears and then crash off into the bush. Asian elephants are afraid of thunderstorms. When there is thunder and lightning they hide under trees.

Elephants charge when threatened. Most of the time the charges are mock charges. But not always. If an elephant stiffens its ears and fans them out in a threatening manner and snorts that usually means it is going to charge. Some elephant are disturbed by loud noises. Motorist are told not to honk at elephants because this sometimes upsets them enough to make them charge. Some elephants have been observed making threatening gestures at planes 1000 feet in the air.

Wild elephant spend much of their time eating grass, tree bark and sugar cane and scratching for water supplies to drink and bath and wallow in. Elephants sleep while standing up. You can tell when they sleeping; they curl up their trunk between their legs. They sometimes like to sleep in the roads because they retain heat better than the jungle. Asian elephants. enjoy rubbing against trees.

Elephants sometimes shed tears when stressed and have been observed grabbing ivory bracelets from tourist. Some elephants have take rubber tires as a toy and cry of it is taken away.

Elephant Intelligence

Elephants have the largest brain of any land animals The size of an elephant's brain at birth is about the same as a human infant.

Elephant expert Cynthia Moss told the Los Angeles Times, “We're trying to study cognition, but it is very difficult. The elephants are afraid of certain people who spear them, such as the Masai. The next tribe over is the Akamba, and they don't spear. (The researchers had a member of each tribe wear a T-shirt for four days.) Then they would put one of these shirts out on the trail in front of the elephants and see what the response was. Inevitably, they would become alarmed if they came upon the Masai shirt, but not if they came upon the Akamba shirt. Also, colors. The Masai wear red, so they tried red and white T-shirts with no smell, and definitely the red shirt elicited an aggressive response. [Source: Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2010]

“In another experiment, the researchers would record and play back the call of an adult female. When they played it to the caller's own family, they would get excited and call "I'm over here!" and they would come toward the speaker. If it was played to members of the caller's bond group, they would respond in a positive way and call back, but not necessarily come running over like they did with their own family member. [Ibid]

“Then, if they played the call to members of the same clan ... they would get a neutral response, with no calling back. But when they played the call to elephants the female didn't contact often, they would be alarmed and they would bunch together. In the end, we concluded that a single female knows the calls of at least 100 other females.

Elephant Intelligence and the Mirror test

Mirror test results in the mid 2000s suggested elephants are able to distinguish themselves from others, a trait at that time that had only been shown in humans, dolphins and chimpanzees. In 2005 a 34-year-old female Asian elephant at the Bronx Zoo named Happy faced her reflection in an mirror and repeatedly used her trunk to touch an “X” painted over her eye. “It seems to verify for us she definitely recognized herself in he mirror, Joshua Plotkin, a one of the researcher involved in the study told AP. At the time Plotkin was a graduate student ay Emory University. [Source: AP, November 2006]

Plotkin told NPR: We tested three elephants - Maxine, Patty, and Happy, all three of them, approached the mirror and did not do social behavior, which is extremely unique. What you expect from an animal when they're first exposed to a mirror, as we see in chimpanzees, is immediate social behavior. As if they're thinking that mirror image is another animal.What we saw immediately was a lot of investigations. So smelling, touching of the mirror surface. Maxine and Patty both tried to actually climb the mirror wall to look up and over and behind it to see perhaps if there was another elephant there.They then moved to what we call contingency testing behavior, which the best way to describe that is an animal moving its head in and out of mirror view as if it's asking itself, why is the animal in the mirror doing the same thing that I'm doing. And then the hallmark that we look for, the self-directed behaviors.

In humans, obviously, when you go to a mirror, you might try and pick food out of your teeth, pick a booger out of your nose, whatever you would do in front of a mirror. Chimpanzees do very similar things. Elephants, on the other hand, we weren't sure what to expect, but what we saw was one elephant, Maxine, for instance, grabbed her left ear and pulled it slowly towards the mirror as if she was inspecting it. And all three elephants did a lot of trunk in mouth displays. Taking their trunks and sticking them into their mouths.

On how all three elephants fared in the “X” test, Plotkin said, We put a visible white face paint mark on one side of her head, and a sham mark - we call this a sham mark - and it's an invisible face mark on the other side of her head. And the reason you do this is you want to make sure that the elephant isn't touching the mark on its head just because it feels it or smells it.And Happy in front of the mirror repeatedly touched the visible white X mark on her head more than 12 times.

Maxine and Patty failed to touch either the “X” mark or the sham mark. On this resultPlotnik said : “We have two hypotheses. One is that we've only tested three elephants here. In the chimpanzee literature, many, many chimpanzees have been tested and less than half of them seem to pass. So the idea is that when you demonstrate the capacity for mirror self-recognition in a species, that's the most important thing. That doesn't necessarily mean that every single individual will pass. The other interesting idea is that chimpanzees and humans, for that matter, like to groom by taking things off their body. So you might have a piece of dirt on your arm that you would want to pick off. And elephants, they actually like to put things on their body. They're constantly dust bathing by throwing dirt on their backs and storing food on their backs. So it's possible that although had Happy had initial interest in the mark on her face, Maxine and Patty just might have seen the mark as inconsequential.

Elephants and Water

Nothing makes an elephant happier than a good wallow in the mud or, if that isn't possible, a dust bath. Elephants bath whenever they get a chance. Their inch-thick skin is surprisingly sensitive and the water, mud and dust help to remove ticks, lice and other parasites

Asian elephants are good swimmers. Baby elephants can swim and turn somersaults in the water. On the Andaman Islands off of India they sometimes dive into the ocean currents of Macpherson's Strait and swim to a logging camp. These swimming elephants have been featured in a Coke commercial. At Chitwan National Park elephant negotiate a river swollen by monsoon rains. The largest elephant usually goes first, angling up stream and breaking the current, making it easier for the smaller elephants to follow.

Elephants coming to a water hole often arrive at dead run because they are so happy to at last find some water. They sometimes go four day between drinks. The wells they dig in dry desert regions not only provide them with water, but supply it to other animals as well.

Elephants may be so fond of water because their ancient ancestors may lived in the water. Researchers ay the University of Melbourne have found that elephant kidneys resemble those of fish and frog and have theorized that their trunks at one time may have acted as snorkels.

Feeding Elephants

elephant teeth

Elephants feeds primarily on leaves, grass, fruit, roots, bark, and other plants. Asian elephant are fond of fruits, berries and grasses in their early, most nutritious, stages of growth. They can not digest rough forage very easily. As once scientist said, "For creatures so large they actually fairly picky eaters." African elephants by contrast have a tougher digestive system and are able to consume large amounts of leaves and roughage.

On average Asian elephant walk about 20 miles and eat 18 to 20 hours each day They eat 300 to 400 pounds of vegetation and drink 25 to 60 gallons of water every 24 hours and needs about 3,200 hectares to supply their daily needs. .

Elephants only digest 40 percent of their food. This means they produce huge amounts of waste. A student at the Indian elephant-driving school put it: "Emissions are strictly eco-friendly, though the can be quite large." There is enough left over material for other animals to feed on.” A large amount of what elephants eat is left undigested due to their weak digestive systems. The leftover fibers are an ideal material for making paper products, Hisashi Ueda the make of dung paper products told Kyodo.

Borborygmus is the technical term used to describe the constant rumbling caused by flatulence in an elephant’s intestines. Asian elephants pass a lot of gas because they food they eat ferments in their stomach. Dinerstein said "their nocturnal flatulence is enough to keep a light sleeper up all night”.

Elephants Get High

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Elephant eat rotten fermented fruit to get drunk. In Malaysia, palm oil farmers have problems with elephants that eat semi-rotten fermented fruit to get drunk. The consumption of semi-rotten fruit is not a problem but the damage they do after they get drunk is.

In India, wild elephants often sneak into villages and drink up brewing rice beer called hadia with their trunk from clay pots used for fermenting it. Explaining the attraction of the drink ,one mahout told the Los Angeles Times, “Elephants get addicted to it. There’s a scientific reason for it, which is that the size of the elephant’s brain, compared to the body weight, is small. When he has hadia, he feels as if he’s flying.”

Sometimes drunk elephants run amok and cause great damage and kill people. Elephants that have a taste for hadia can smell it two miles away and have been known to kill people who try t keep them from drinking it.

Elephants also munch on wild marijuana and enjoy chewing on tobacco leaves. They have observed eating plants with selim, knowing their tolerance to the toxins, to get ride of worms.

See Elephant Attacks in India

Elephants and Other Animals

A biologist at the Oregon Graduate Institute told AP: "Elephants are a keystone species. If you save the elephants and the ecosystems where they live in, you'll save a lot of other species." Grazing animals like antelope and zebra depend on elephants to knock down trees and clear bush so grass can grow. Elephants dig holes in dry river beds that produce small pools that provide drinking water for a host of other animals.

Elephants are not afraid of mice as cartoon watchers are often led to believe. One zoo keeper described an elephant that used to share his food with a mouse in his cage. Asian elephants are harassed by a species of moth that pokes its proboscis into the elephant’s eyes, causing the pachyderms to produces tears that the moths feed on.

Elephants and tigers both go out of their way to avoid a confrontation with the other. When confronted with a tiger, some elephants will bravely hold their ground while other will flee with their tail between their legs. Encounters with wild bison are similar, while rhinos and elephants seem to tolerate one another

Many tiger watching expeditions take place on the backs elephants. Tigers tend to ignore elephants with human passengers. Sometimes they charge elephants carrying toutiest. But very rarely. Elephants in Nepal bang their trunk to ground with a loud thump when they first sense that a tiger is nearby. To alert elephants far away they emit a deep rumble. Tigers sometimes charge elephants but very rarely.

To get good camera shots from the back of an elephant Breeden used an 11-foot tripod and used a young elephant trained to stand absolutely still during filming.

Image Sources: YouTube Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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