Skip to content

How smart is an elephant? Insights into an elephant’s brain

Here at Tsavo Trust, we know better than most how intelligent elephants are, and are proud to work alongside these incredible creatures. Whether we are observing matriarchs navigating the arid landscapes of Tsavo, leading their herd to important resources, or struggling to stop notorious crop raiders from accessing local community farms, the incredible brains of elephants are always on display

Additionally, we regularly use our weekly blog to showcase remarkable feats of elephant intelligence, including their ability to tell the difference between Kenyan tribes, the evidence suggesting they give each other personal names and even the stories that elephants deliberately get drunk. For this week’s article we will delve into an elephant’s brain, and discuss what gives elephants their incredible intelligence.

Elephant brains

Much like the rest of the elephant, their brains are huge. Weighing an average 4.8kg, the largest among living and extinct terrestrial animals.

The elephant’s brain also has a similar structure to that of humans. They have a developed cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps solve problems. They have a large hippocampus, which is linked to emotion, and is part of the reason elephants have been observed having significant emotional reactions to things, including suffering from PTSD.

The fact that elephant brains are well rounded and developed means they are able to display a wide range of behaviors including grief, learning, play, mimicry compassion and cooperation.

Measuring intelligence by looking at brains

Measuring intelligence by looking at an animals brain is a particularly tricky task. One popular measurement that is used to predict cognitive abilities in animals is the Encephalization quotient (EQ), essentially this gives you a mathematical relationship between brain mass and body mass.

The EQ method singled out humans as the species with, by far, the largest value and therefore the best cognitive ability, around 7-8. Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) hold EQs of around 3. While, interestingly, African elephants only hold an EQ value of 1.3, similar to that of camels and squirrels.

However, the results of using the EQ method are at odds with very obvious observational evidence of African elephants, which display high levels of cognitive intelligence, especially in comparison to camels and squirrels.

So, in order to understand the intelligence of the African elephant, we need to go deeper into the makeup of their brains.

Neurons are the nerve cells that send messages throughout the body, enabling functions like talking, moving, eating, and thinking. The number of neurons in an elephant’s brain is much greater than that found in other mammals, including humans. In fact an African elephant’s brain contains 257 billion neurons, around three times more than the average human brain.

This evidence could suggest that cognitive abilities are based not on the EQ score but on the absolute number of neurons found in the brain, which would explain why elephants show much higher intelligence compared to mammals with similar EQs, such as camels.

However, this theory would also suggest that elephants should be smarter than humans, and although they show intelligence, they don’t show the same levels of cognitive abilities as we do.

A different type of intelligence

Again, it is when you look more into the structure of the brain do clues for elephants intelligence begin to reveal themselves, specifically where, in the brain, the neurons are located.

The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain and has many functions including primarily voluntary muscular movements but also memory and emotions. Elephants, despite having a cerebral cortex twice the size of us, only have 5.6 billion neurons, around one third of the neurons found in the average human’s cerebral cortex. This would explain why humans show much higher levels of cognitive abilities compared to elephants.

97.5% of an African elephant’s neurons are located in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that is used for motor control and balance. The large number of neurons found in the cerebellum of elephants has been explained as a result of the unusual amounts of information coming from one particular source, the elephant’s trunk.

The elephant’s trunk

An elephant’s trunk is an incredibly versatile tool, highly tactile and motile. The trunk has infinite degrees of freedom of movement, given its absence of bones and joints. The tip of the trunk is also highly sensitive and relays a wealth of information to the elephant’s brain, through touch and smell.

Scientists have begun to speculate that the extraordinary amount of neurons found in the elephant’s cerebellum are used to process extraordinary amounts of information coming from the elephants trunk as well as to compensate for the use of this tool.

Interestingly, the use of the trunk is so intricately linked to the elephants intelligence that it impacted early tests on elephant cognition.

Elephant Trunks
Elephant trunks are extremely versatile tools

Testing elephant intelligence

Researchers, in an attempt to measure elephants’ problem-solving abilities, left fruit tantalizingly out of the elephants’ reach. They also gave the elephants a stick to use to grab the fruits. This is a test that chimpanzees excel at, however the elephants failed spectacularly, indicating that they were not good problem solvers.

However, the fault was not with the elephants but with the test. In order to use the stick to get the fruit, the elephant needed to use their trunk, blunting their senses including touch and smell. Essentially, it was like asking a human to find a door but giving them a blind fold first.

It was only when the test was amended and the elephants were given a large block, which they could manipulate into place and stand on to grab the fruit that the elephants problem solving abilities were revealed.

Implications for conservation

Elephant’s problem solving abilities are part of the reason they can become hard to control, this is particularly important for farmers living within or near the Tsavo Conservation Area, where elephants would easily find ways to break through almost every fence, in order to access the crops growing behind them.

Creating elephant proof fences to protect farmers and their crops is a considerable challenge. One way Tsavo Trust has helped is through the installation of “porcupine fences”, as part of our 10% fence plan within Kamungi Conservancy. These fences have reduced crop raiding by 100% since installation.

20210201 10� Fence Plans Peter Mwangangi
“Porcupine fences” in action

Another technique, which actually plays on the elephants reluctance to risk their most valuable and vulnerable body part, is the use of “bee-hive fences”. Elephants are extremely cautious of bees as they are able to sting them in sensitive areas, such as the tip of their trunk, so in order to keep their most valuable tool working well, elephants will avoid the bee hives and therefore the tasty crops behind them.

We know from firsthand experience how intelligent elephants are. Emotionally complex and great problem solvers, they possess remarkable brains. Their brains are also unique in the sense that they are hardwired to process enormous amounts of information from their trunks. Their intelligence is yet another great reason we should strive to protect this animal by safeguarding their remaining habitats and promoting coexistence between humans.

If you would like to support Tsavo Trust’s efforts in protecting one of Earth’s most intelligent animals, then follow this link.

Back To Top