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Elephants: Why They Are So Smart - Yellow Magpie

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Published on April 6th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


Elephants: Why They Are So Smart


Elephants are amazing animals for many reasons. Firstly, their massive size means that they command a lot of respect. However, once you become accustomed to their enormous bulk, their intelligence starts to come to the fore.

It is their large brains and their acute reasoning that puts elephants on a par with other intelligent animals such as humans.

In Yellow Magpie’s Elephants: PTSD And Killing People we saw what happens when elephants acted destructively towards humans for different reasons. Here we will look at how these magnificent animals share many human traits.

Large Brains

Elephants have the largest brains of all the land animals. At five kilograms (11 lbs), their brains are more than three times the weight of human brains. Like in humans, it is the elephants’ large brains that are responsible for their intelligence. On a ranking scale they are rated as equally intelligent as cetaceans and primates such as chimpanzees.

Human, Pilot Whale And Elephant Brain

The last 20 years or so of studying these animals has brought an enriched understanding of elephant behaviour. And the results have been astonishing. We now know that elephants are self-aware and fully feeling creatures. They display complex emotions such as grief, and compassion. They can paint, use tools, display altruistic tendencies, and some people even maintain that they have musical ability.


Elephants have joined a select group of animals that includes, chimpanzees, magpies, gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, dolphins, orcas and humans.

Self-awareness is tested using the ‘Mirror Test‘. This is conducted by surreptitiously placing a mark on the animal that they can only see through a mirror. If the animal passes the test, it will immediately try to touch the spot on their body. Usually, children cannot pass the test until they are at least 18 months old.

Here is a video of chimpanzees and orangutans undertaking the mirror test.

Communication Skills

One of the key components of intelligence is the ability to be able to communicate. Virtually, every animal, from the tiny ant, to the absolutely vital honey bee can talk to one another and convey information. Elephants are no different.

They use their trunks to convey various emotions such as shock, excitement and anger by making trumpet sounds. This has been well-know for decades but what has only recently come to light is their sub-sonic, low-frequency communication.

It is estimated that elephants can communicate with one another as far away as ten kilometres (six miles) away. The low-frequency travels through the air for much longer distances than high frequency sound. We need special low-frequency instruments to pick up these communications.

Indian Or Asian Elephants

It is quite obvious when elephants are communicating in this low-frequency manner. The elephant, or if it is a herd, all elephants, will raise one foot in the air and listen intently. As it does this, the elephant will face the direction that the sound is emanating from.

Currently, animal scientists are trying to work out what these sounds mean and what exactly the elephants are communicating.

Elephant Society

One aspect of intelligence that elephants share with people is their need to be social. Elephants live in groups in a highly ordered structure. Within this social order there are two very different worlds depending upon the sex of the elephant. Males are solitary creatures who only meet other elephants during mating season. Meanwhile, the females will all live together for life under the guidance of the head of the family, the matriarch.

Adult And Baby Elephant

Younger males live in the comfort of the herd for the entire duration of their formative years. However, once they start to approach adolescence behavioural changes start to emerge. The young male will slowly over months move to the outer reaches of the group. Gradually, he will spend more time on his own – staying away from the family herd for increasing periods of time until one day he will leave the herd permanently.

‘An Elephant Never Forgets

The final component of intelligence is memory. Without the ability to recall information, nothing would ever be learned and instead every action would be instinctual. Virtually, ever animal has mnemonic abilities. Elephants have very good memories and can remember information for decades.

There is a structural reason for this. The temporary lobes, which are associated with memory, are much more developed in elephants’ brains than in humans. However, this only explains how elephants possess such good memories it doesn’t explain why.

Female Herd Of African Elephants

To answer the why, you have to look at the elephant’s behaviour. Elephants need to be able to recognise other elephants, some elephants may be friendly, others may be more aggressive and somewhat dangerous.

However, the need to have good memory also transcends recognition. It is very important for elephants to be able to remember where to obtain food and water during different seasons. This becomes critical when there are droughts as their survival is at stake. Good memories also allow the elephants to navigate through a bewilderingly vast territory.

Creatures Of Surprise

Elephants are far closer to people than we think. These majestic animals possess incredible power, a canny ability to communicate and amazing memory which is more developed than our own and acute intelligence.

No doubt, as we learn more about these larges creatures, we will keep being astonished by what they reveal.

Highly Recommended Get This Book Through Amazon

Check out Yellow Magpie’s Elephants: PTSD And Killing People, The Elephant: A Grass-Guzzling Digestive System Phenomena and Elephants: A Remarkably Human Animal for further insight into this amazing animal.

Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family by Cynthia Moss is a thrilling and eye-opening read. Full of wonderful insight and knowledge that can only be gleaned from hands-on experience, Elephant Memoirs is one of the better books on the subject.

You can obtain Elephant Memories here from Amazon.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom you can access Elephant Memories here.

For those living in Canada you can obtain Elephant Memories from here.

For Germany: Elephant Memories.

For France: Elephant Memories.

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