It Takes a Lot of Elephant Brains to Solve This Mystery

Oct 26, 2022 · 55 comments
Bob (Maine)
No surprise whatever that there are significant differences between the African and Asian elephants. They're from two widely separated branches of the family tree - having diverged geneticaly tens of millions of years ago. The Indian elephants are much more closely related to the extinct Pleistocene mammoths than they are to the African elephants.
P!ink Plonk (The Hub of the Universe)
I'm wondering about why there are such an abundance of facial neurons in dolphins. Any wild ideas, anyone ?
Katherine Brennan (San Francisco)
Oh, I dearly hope that an elephant will enter the 2024 US presidential election. Pretty sure he/she would win by a trunkslide!
Mr Isaac (Los Angeles)
A zoo is a jail for innocent animals that yearn to be free. These are not pets that have evolved to depend on humans. They are kidnap victims. Free the elephants!
Fred Smith (Stony Brook)
@Mr Isaac - obviously that depends on the individual background. Often animals live longer in zoos than in the wild. And even if a zoo is cruel to an individual it might be kind to the world population since zoos foster interest in wildlife.
Climatechangeclimatechange (City)
Washington DC zoo? Was taking photos of the tiles - and just silently sat with these incredible animals for an hour. Remarkable moment I will never forget.
Melinda Mueller (Canada)
If you want to see elephants in all their incredible glory, the wild is the only place to see them. Yes, their trunks are incredible tools, but their wisdom, compassion for others, devotion to their families, and tolerance for us when we so clearly don’t deserve it, are what you can only appreciate when observing them in their ancestral homes.
Jack Hartman (Appalachian Trail)
I visited Myanmar in 2018 and went to a privately managed "elephant retirement camp" that cared for elephants who had worked in the logging industry but were either too old or injured to continue their work. The most enjoyable part of the trip was giving an elephant a bath in a mountain stream. She seemed to really enjoy it and I swear she had a smile on her face. But the eye opening thing we did was feed four elephants a "sandwich" made of several different fruits and vegetables. Our small group was told to move from one elephant to the next, inside a circle of the four elephants, feeding each one as we went while the keepers would make the sandwiches for us. I got a little distracted by one elephant and then felt this gentle tapping on my shoulder. I thought it was one of the keepers reminding me to continue to move along to the next elephant. When I turned around I saw that it was actually one of the elephants who was doing the reminding. I marveled at this elephant's ability to mimic a human's shoulder tap so perfectly with her trunk. Later, I also realized how smart she was to notice that I wasn't moving along like a should have and her decision to give me a reminder that it was now her turn to receive a sandwich. I also spent 5 years in Africa and, after countless safaris, it was the elephants that I found to be the most interesting species for reasons too long to get into here. I just hope I have the chance to take my grandkids on one of these adventures some day.
John Magee (Friday Harbor, WA)
@Jack Hartman Like you, I have spent a great deal of time in Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and I have been on more safaris than I can remember. Elephants were far and away the most interesting animals. Their immensity, their obvious intelligence, and those trunks! I could hang with them for hours. I hope to go back some day.
Michael (Idaho)
@Jack Hartman I recommend the book “Elephant Company” by Vicki Croke.
Jack Hartman (Appalachian Trail)
@John Magee Another thing I did (in Nairobi where we lived for 2 1/2 years) was visit the elephant orphanage founded by Daphne Sheldrick. There we fed the baby elephants their milk (a recipe Ms. Sheldrick devised that they loved) with an oversize bottle. They also offered the chance to read bedtime stories to these elephants (something they got every night). They were almost human-like in their needs and personalities. However, wild elephants can be very dangerous. I once took my daughter and her college friends to the National Park at Mt. Kenya. There weren't any guides available so we drove up the side of the mountain until the road petered out and hiked the rest of the way to the tree line (about 9,000 feet). I warned the group that just because we hadn't seen any animals on the way up, that didn't mean we wouldn't see any on the way down. Sure enough, as I was following the kids back down the road I saw an elephant's ear flap out from behind a huge bush beside the road. I skidded to a stop just as the elephant flapped his ear a second time and the kids all saw it and stopped. We gave it plenty of time to move off but years later after we left Kenya a teacher at the American school there was killed along with her infant by a female elephant who felt her own baby was endangered by the humans. While I knew our hike was risky I have thanked my lucky stars since that it wasn't us that came across a female with a baby (the one we saw was almost certainly a very young male).
Cheryl (Yorktown)
Wow, this is fascinating. It suggests that all of the neuronal fire power, their trunks must be exquisitely sensitive to the slightest pressure. Yet where they are used in work ,bull hooks are used on them including on their trunks. It must be incredibly painful. What humans are capable of --- I wonder if their olfactory nerves are also more numerous and with specialized sensors. So much to learn about them and their numbers are dwindling. There are way too many of us - -
Mostly_Bitter_Old_Man (Somewhere_on_the_Fringe)
And NO animal (except certain humans) belongs in a cage.
Ben Franken (The Netherlands)
A better understanding of elephants providing more information about other big mammals I haven’t the slightest doubt about that ,...but humans including ? ...then perhaps paraphrasing the title of a wonderful French movie : “Un éléphant se trompe énormément « more realistic.
OldSchoolTechie (Upstate NY)
Decades ago. Early one morning in Chicago. At the zoo. No one else around. The elephant alone. I realized the animal was more intelligent than most humans. Her situation was a sad commentary on our species.
Carol (No. Calif.)
Elephants are such amazing, wonderful, intelligent animals. Thank you, NYT, for this article. A miracle of nature.
A (B)
I have loved elephants growing up in India where every time I saw one as a child, I felt their eyes looked so wise and also so sad. Elephants are revered in India but sadly also used for labour and entertainment. It is unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity that elephants through history have been killed for ivory. Elephants are so intelligent, with the matriarch leading the family and mourning their members for years, A world without elephants in it is unimaginable. 🐘🐘🐘
Paula S (Oakland, CA)
I came to my love of elephants after falling for whales. The latter I've interacted with and kissed, and now I'd love to meet an elephant and be 'frisked,' as another reader described. After discovering them on Instagram, I'm proudly supporting Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya; they've rescued and rehabilitated many elephants as well as other endangered species. They're incredible, as are the animals they serve.
susie richey (01982)
@Paula S Same here; Sheldrick Wildlife Trust should be on everyone's donation list; elephants are completely remarkable, capable of all of our human emotions: anger, happiness and sorrow, and also: wonder.
J Harch (Southern New Jersey)
@Paula S I was given adoption of a rescued elephant at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust as a birthday gift this past year. What a wonderful gift.
Paula S (Oakland, CA)
@J Harch Agreed! They're amazing creatures.
northlander (Michigan)
I ran a small zoo in Indiana. My wonderful circus retired Indian Elephant Bubbles craved cheap cigars, and she could pick one out of my inside coat pocket. She would wrap her entire trunk around me, pull me into her huge chest, lift my coat and slip out a single cigar with the tip of her trunk. Then she’d unwrap me, wave the cigar around, then carefully eat it. It was terrifying at first but the circus guy who brought her said she’d do her routine only after that ritual, which he taught me. I had to limit tours for local politicians who wouldn’t have been so understanding.
akamai (New York)
@northlander Elephants belong in the wild, never in a circus.
Blackmamba (IL)
And African Savannah and Forest Elephant herd is a matriarchy led by the eldest female her sisters, their daughters and granddaughters with sexually immature males hannging on. An Asian Elephant herd is similarly organized. But the African Forest and Asian Elephant are more closely last common ancestor genetic heritage related.
whitebuffalo (SE PA)
@Blackmamba One of them, I foget which now, is more closely related to mammoths.
LWebber (UK)
@whitebuffalo - Asian elephants are the ones more closely related to mammoth. An easy way to remember it is to think of the fuzzy Asian elephant calves! (I have a PhD in both Asian & African elephant calves - there are plenty of pics of the fuzzy Asian elephant calves & more facts over on our charity's websites, Trunks & Leaves :)
Suzanne (Charleston SC)
elephants dolphins whales should run the world 🌎
SandSi (Northeast)
I fell in love with elephants when Babar was read to me as a child. As a larger "child", when I went to India and met real elephants, I was totally awed. I spent some very happy times gratefully riding on elephants. They kept me safe, high up on their backs and away from tigers and snakes of both the human and "other" kinds, and made it possible for me to really see, hear, and smell the forest. I had a favorite. I used to bring her bananas and other goodies from breakfast, which she accepted with the greatest of good manners ... and each time would frisk me for any goodies I might have hidden on my person. The feeling of being frisked by an elephant is just amazing! But when I would tell her that I really and truly didn't have any more treats, she would look at me with a very knowing eye and a slight smile and the tiniest little huff of acknowledgement and then we would go on about our day, each of us happier for having met the other.
Lovepet (Carolina Beach)
Riding elephants hurts them.
FinianT (LA,CA)
@SandSi Nice but did you know that an elephant's spine is not made to carry things, much less those horrible seats so tourists can visit the jungle. Want to see the elephant, walk with them, look at them.... not ride. The animals suffer but for the keepers, it's about money.
Thomas Zaslavsky (Binghamton, N.Y.)
@Lovepet How would we know that?
Ian Evans (Honolulu)
It's great to have chopstick "fingers" at the end of your trunk but even better that you can suck up gallons of water and squirt it into your mouth, over your back and at your baby. Snorting up dust as well to coveryourbackon a hot day . I'm just back from 5 weeks in southern Africa and watched elephants at Hwange. Mapungubwe, Kruger. and Addo national parks. We watched a large bull almost totally submerged in the Zambezi River using the very tip of his trunk above water like a snorkel! Long live the elephants and thanks to Rudyard Kipling who told us how they originally acquired this very useful trunk!
NoBadTimes (California)
Interesting. So, I would guess, (newly) King Charles has facial neurons more akin to that of African elephants than of Asian elephants....
Garden Gnome (Herefordshire, England)
@NoBadTimes Fascinating and educational article. And a remarkably sharp tangent to take in an over-focused deflection. As polite people deem, 'If they make a comment about appearance, they have no comment."
mtwjo (NH)
Why does nyTimes keep mis-using the term "trilobites"? Elephant neurophysiology in a column under "trilobites." Go figure.
D (Ann Arbor, MI)
@mtwjo I believe it's a NYT category name covering articles on natural history.
Thomas Zaslavsky (Binghamton, N.Y.)
@D I believe it's a category for small science articles.
sheila (mpls)
I, too, love the Times and enjoy reading it when I breakfast first thing in the morning as I'm doing right now. Last night I read the great article on Phillip K. Dick and it seems that there is a carryover to this article on elephants. Oh, if only PKD were here now, I bet he'd have so much fun playing around with this article and science fiction.
Alice Tay (VA)
"the elephant’s cerebellum, the brain region that controls motor functions, has 12 times as many neurons than expected for a mammal of its size." The cerebellum does a lot more than control motor function. Most notably, it has roles in learning and other cognitive abilities known to be advanced in elephants.
Kathleen King (Virginia)
@Alice Tay. and gods forbid that humans should have to admit that there are species potentially if not already "smarter" than homo-not-so-sapiens. And as it happens they are uniformly species basically not aggressive or predatory (some whales are exceptions). Could it be that we will in fact eliminate ourselves, soon, before we spoil it for everyone else and the "meek will inherit" the earth as they deserve to do?
Thomas Zaslavsky (Binghamton, N.Y.)
@Alice Tay I often wonder how intelligent elephants are and how much we don't know about that. We barely know their social structures.
Melinda Mueller (Canada)
Amboseli Trust for Elephants is based in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, and has been running the longest ever continuous study of elephant families and behaviours, for well over 40 years now. Cynthia Moss, who began the study and still lives at the ATE headquarters in Amboseli, has written wonderful books about their findings. We know quite a lot, actually. And each snippet of knowledge is more humbling than the last. They are incredible beings in every possible way.
firlfriend (usa)
Fascinating. I always wondered about the difference between the two types of elephants. There is actually a third type of elephant. There is the forest elephant whose tusks are different than savannah and Asian elephants. Their tusks are different (closer together) in order to move trees. There are very few forest elephants left as well. Look it up and see the difference with tusks.
MEM (Los Angeles)
Interesting, but... Broad generalizations made from a small sample size, four of each type of elephant (male? female? old? young?), can only be tentative. Absolute numbers of neurons are only one aspect of brain function. The complexity of connections is also important.
Stale frybread (Ohlone land)
I will always click on a nice article about elephants
frankly 32 (by the sea)
questions: 1. Can African and Indian elephants mate? 2. If so, how are their offspring different? 3. What is the "known" evolution, did a population of African elephants migrate toward India and Asia? 4. Is it true, as I heard as a boy, that there is a subset of African elephants around the Limpopo River that have demonstrated an unusual capacity for curiosity that frequently gets them into trouble with other animals?
Vince Carter (Washington, DC)
Amazing explanation of how these wonderful creatures live and impact life in general. Humans are lucky to have them on earth. Thank you for publishing this wonderful summary.
mja (LA, Calif)
@Vince Carter Thank you for your service, sergeant!
TG (Santa Ana, CA)
@Vince Carter " Humans are lucky to have them on earth. " Sadly, the exact opposite is true for the reverse relationship.
Chetana (Los Angeles)
Amazing! Thanks for a great essay. Elephants are the most majestic and wonderful beings who make this Earth a magical place in cosmos. When I visit my hometown, about 5 miles from town is a elephant sanctuary. In every visit while I observe Asian elephants, I take in a little bit of divine these elephants offer.❤️🌷
Carole (Australia)
Soo interesting, wonderful to read something positive about elephants instead of how many are killed. I love these creatures for their cleverness & uniqueness.
Par Ici (Par Là)
I just love how the NYT educates me! Your fascinating stories, such as this one, are well written, easy to follow and open my mind to the wider glorious world. Also, I adore elephants. Years ago a lovely elephant actually allowed me to take a ride on him. Fabulous creatures and now I have infinite respect for their trunks! Thank you NYT! 😘
hat (Tucson, AZ)
@Par Ici I agree with your assessment about NYT. My morning coffee is not complete without NYT. I am a retired engineer who also took fancy to the hot new topics of Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). I have learned a great deal about both subjects from NYT and I have archived many of their articles for future reference. Keep up the good work NYT :)
Sang Ze (Massachusetts)
@Par Ici And they're all republicans, too.
whitebuffalo (SE PA)
@Par Ici No real elephant is a Republican as they live in close knit family groups led by females.
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