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Elephants: Big animals with even bigger emotions

Elephants: Big animals with even bigger emotions

Elephants really do never forget. Whether it’s the anniversary of the death of a loved one, or how to pick a lock, elephants have the aptitude to learn and withhold a lot of information and skills. But it is their capacity for respect and compassion that is perhaps the most surprising of all...

The Emotional Depth of Elephants

In with the in crowd

Elephants live in the most intimate societies of all mammals. Females only leave the group if they are abducted by humans. Living in groups of approximately ten, elephants communicate amongst themselves or between herds for many kilometres by stamping feet and producing sounds too low for humans to hear.


My Sweet Baby Love

Elephants Flirting
Elephants will flirt with each other for approximately twenty minutes before mating. Their courting rituals involve an array of affectionate gestures and nuzzles.

Infants are taught life skills by their mothers. The females lead the matriarchal herds and will employ a few babysitters to care for the infant while she makes time to produce enough milk.


I’ll Be There

Elephants have the most advanced capacity for emotion and spatial awareness than any other animal. This is because their hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for dealing with emotion, is more developed.  Because of this, they will often show signs of grief, humor, compassion, cooperation and self-awareness.

There are many reports of elephants showing compassion and helping other species at their own risk. There was a recent news story of an elephant precariously balancing on a riverbank and extending its trunk for a kitten who was sure to drown.

When an elephant is ill, its herd will bring food and support it as it stands. If a herd member should die, the others will try to resuscitate it with provisions for as long as they can. An elephant will show signs of depression if they were close to the one who passes away.


The Great Escape

Elephants escaping 
Elephants have superior intellect to most mammals. Their brains, weighing more than 5 kilograms, have more complex folds than all mammals except whales. Their ability to keep track of multiple objects in 3D space is far greater than humans.

Elephant’s are skilled tool users. An elephant’s trunk allows for a high degree of object manipulation. Elephants in captivity have been known to take advantage of this; there have been stories of elephants escaping zoos by employing many elephant ‘guards’ as one undoes the lock. Once an elephant faked an injury as a distraction while another helped the others escape. Once free, the ‘injured’ elephant climbed to its feet and ran for the door. Elephants have also been taught to use their dexterous trunk to paint, producing some incredible artwork.


‘Til Death Do Us Part

Elephant Funeral
Elephants are the only animals (other than humans) known to have death rituals. When an elephant has died, the group will grow silent. They will usually dig a grave and cover the deceased with earth, twigs and branches. The herd will stay at the graveside for many days after this respectful ritual.

Herds that find another elephant who has passed away alone will carry out this same funeral-esque routine. There are also cases of elephants burying dead humans they have found in this way.

Illustrations by Florence Shaw 
Read more by Sophie Taylor

Watch Shirley andJenny, Two Elephants reunited after 20 years