Elephants Are Probably Even Smarter Than We Thought

We know that elephants are smart, but we might have not realized just how smart. Now, Mineko and Suzuko, two captive female Asian elephants from Japan, might have just proved that elephants understand basic physics.

Do Elephants Understand Physics?

As reported in Science News, the secret to Mineko and Suzuko’s intelligence is food. Kaori Mizuno and colleagues at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Hayama, Japan observed something peculiar in 2011. One of the elephants, Mineko, was “blowing with her trunk to obtain food.” The elephants’ enclosure at the Kamine Zoo in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, is surrounded by a U-shaped ditch. Mineko and Suzuko can’t enter or cross it, and the dry moat is “shallow enough that an elephant can reach an object on the bottom with its trunk, but not if that object is on the far side of the moat.”

So Mizuno’s team decided to test and tempt the elephants by placing hard-to-resist elephant treats like apples, bamboo, hay, potatoes or fallen leaves on the opposite side of the ditch. Then they recorded the magic and published their findings in Animal Cognition. Both elephants used their trunks to blow the treats closer to them by using the same basic technique: “Each would reach out her trunk, aim backwards a bit and blow out a few puffs of air, driving the food close enough to grab.” But Mineko was the clear master.

The researchers conclude “that elephants seem to understand causality and physical reasoning.” While they’re not sure how the elephants picked up the skill, social learning is probably a factor since both elephants practice it. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time this behavior has been observed. In Charles Darwin’s 1874 The Descent of Man, Darwin struggles with this question: “Is trunk-blowing considered tool use?”

3 Other Examples of Elephants’ Mental and Emotional Intelligence

Elephants have big brains and big hearts that we’re just starting to understand. According to Scientific American, “They [Elephants] are adept tool users and cooperative problem solvers; they are highly empathetic, comforting one another when upset; and they probably do have a sense of self.” Here are three examples of when elephant (mental or emotional) intelligence has surprised us:

1. They listen and judge us by our voices. Research shows that African elephants can differentiate between different human languages, along with the ages and genders of the speakers. The elephants use this information to determine who poses a threat.

2. They can anticipate danger. We’re fully aware that elephants are constantly threatened by poachers for their tusks, and Satao, Kenya’s beloved elephant, seemed to know this too. Prior to his death, filmmakers Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone observed Satao “zigzagging” in the bushes, apparently desperately trying to hide his tusks. Deeble recalls feeling both “incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad — impressed that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger, but so sad at what that meant,” reports One Green Planet. And another study of wild African elephants shows that elephants produce alarm calls in response to threats from humans, and they quickly become more vigilant and run away “with a distinctive low rumble.” The alarm calls can be divided into two types of responses to threats, and they “reflect the level of urgency of a particular threat or danger,” says Science World Report.

3. They are highly evolved, empathetic beings. Fortunately, some elephants get a happier ending. Raju the Crying Elephant from India tugged at our heartstrings when rescuers freed him from the shackles he wore during 50 years of captivity. As Raju’s rescue footage shows, Raju began to weep. While part of the tears were undoubtedly from physical pain, the rescuers also believe that “he also seemed to sense that change was coming. It was as if he felt hope for the first time in a very long time,” Wildlife SOS Founder Kartick Satyanarayan told Mirror. Was Raju capable of sensing these changes? The evidence suggests that it’s possible. There are countless examples of elephants acting empathetically: they’ll help each other in distress, grieve for dead family members and experience the same emotions as each other, i.e. emotional contagion. From one empathetic species to another, maybe Raju caught his rescuers’ emotions. Or maybe they were tears of his own emotions; as Marc Bekoff, a pioneering cognitive ethologist, explains in Live Science, “while scientists are not 100-percent certain, solid scientific research supports the view that elephants and other nonhuman animals weep as part of an emotional response.”

So do elephants understand physics concepts like causality (cause and effect)? Why not — they seem to understand other, sometimes far more complex, things.

Photo Credit: Daniel Ramirez


W. C
W. C1 years ago


Mark Donner
Mark Donner3 years ago

It's a certainty that ALL animals right down to the microbe, are more advanced, intelligent, evolved, and moral than the average human.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner3 years ago

Anyone who harms an elephant should sentenced by the courts to be ripped limb from limb. The old style of justice, tie his limbs to four horses, and get them to go in four different directions. No mercy for these elephant poachers.

Melania Padilla
Melania P3 years ago

I would not be surprised, thank you

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey3 years ago


Neil A.
Neil A3 years ago


Sue H.
.3 years ago

The day we humans realize that all animals have their own unique languages and we learn how to speak to them in a manner they understand we will probably become as intelligent as the other creatures we share the planet with.

Kamia T.
Kamia T3 years ago

The sad truth is that MOST animals are FAR more intelligent than we want to admit, due to our human arrogance, and sadly we will probably stupidly wipe all of them out before we even calm down enough to figure out just how much.

Pat P.
Pat P3 years ago

Just because we cannot understand another species' actions, or the reason their response is different than ours, only shows that we are either stupid, arrogant or uninformed. To assume that we know all may be the cause of our demise.