Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Odd Ones Out: Questions That Didn't Follow the Herd

By Sophie Wasserman

As an organization dedicated to conservation education and public outreach, the Think Elephants International (TEI) team answers a lot of questions. In fact, the most common subjects we get asked about have inspired a large number of our previous blog topics. This week, however, I’ve decided to use this blog to answer the uncommon queries: those questions that stuck out most in our minds as truly interesting and unusual. So here, in no particular order, are the top 5 most unexpected questions from the past 6 months:

“Do elephants have birthdays?”

Boonsri has her birthday party hat on

            An overwhelming favorite here in the office, this question came from an inquisitive five year-old. Yes, elephants do have birthdays; Little Pumpui’s, for example, is September 1. As far as we know, they don’t celebrate them like humans would, but sometimes mahouts will give their elephants special treats like extra fruit. Interestingly, elephants don’t have a particular calving season and can give birth at any time of the year, but typically more births occur during the plentiful rainy season rather than the harsher dry season.

“Do they like it if you scratch behind their ears?”

Am enjoys a nice scratch
Photo by Lisa Barrett

            Keep in mind that an elephant is not a pet; they’re not bred to crave human affection like a domesticated dog (or, when it’s in a good mood, a cat). That being said, individual preferences vary from elephant to elephant. Some love a scratch under the chin, others like a nice back rub. Am will happily raise her leg to allow better access to her favorite spot and Bleum will open her mouth insistently until you give her tongue a massage. However, you should never hug an elephant around the trunk, because you could constrict their breathing, especially the younger calves.

“Can they speak English?”

Namchoke and her mahout Pom

            The elephants here in Thailand are primarily trained using a combination of words from Thai and a unique elephant language. So if I wanted one of the elephants to walk towards me, they wouldn’t respond to me shouting, “come here” in English. Could we teach them English commands? Sure, the elephants don’t “speak Thai,” they only recognize combinations of sounds. The elephants could learn to respond to Spanish or Swahili just as easily. Though most of the elephants understand over 80 different commands, there is currently no evidence that they grasp grammatical structure or complex syntax.
As for actually speaking English, except for one case of a zoo elephant in Korea mimicking the speech sounds of his keepers, there is little evidence that points towards the ability to produce a spoken language like English. Most elephant vocalization utilizes the trunk, which is not adapted to produce the same type and range of sounds that human mouths are.

“Can they smell fear?”

Boonjan scents her surroundings
            Now that’s a tricky one. The short answer is that we have no idea. The long answer is that when people say animals like dogs or horses can “smell your fear,” what they mean is that often these animals will recognize and react differently to a person who is clearly afraid. It is currently unknown whether these animals are seeing the social cues associated with fear, such as changes in voice, posture or facial expression, or actually “smelling” changes in the composition of our sweat. Recent research has shown that even humans might be subconsciously sensitive to the difference between fearful sweat produced when waiting to give an oral presentation and non-emotional sweat released during exercise, but the mechanism by which we might do that is still unclear.
         Turning back to elephants, our research has shown that they don’t seem to pick up on human cues such as pointing (Check out the paper here). This makes it less probable that elephants would be sensitive, like a domesticated animal, to our gestural communication of fear. However, since fear is a primal emotion that conveys a nearby threat, it could be to their evolutionary advantage to recognize fear in different species.  
As for actually smelling fear, elephants have a well-developed vomeronasal organ (Detailed in Dan's blog here), which allows them to detect chemical information about pheromones and hormone levels in the urine of other elephants. Though there is a possibility that it could also detect signs of stress and fear in the body odor of humans, the vomeronasal organ is better adapted to detect fluid-phase chemicals, or those suspended in solution, like in urine. Thus, if you peed your pants in fear, and an elephant got a nice trunkful of it, the elephant could possibly tell that you were afraid.

“If you approached an elephant in the wild, would they be as friendly as the elephants here?”

Elsa compares her hand to an elephant footprint
            You should never approach a wild elephant. Even as a hypothetical exercise, it’s a risky maneuver! The elephants here are tolerant of humans because they’ve developed positive working relationships with their mahouts and are accustomed to working with new groups of people (eased, I’m sure, by the fact that visitors tend to spoil them with food). Wild elephants are even more unpredictable; they could react with curiosity, disinterest, aggression, etc. Elephants are also very protective of their young and would see your intrusion as a threat should any calves be nearby. Finally, elephants in the wild have typically only had negative experiences with humans; between poaching, illegal trapping and human-elephant conflict, wild elephants currently have no reason to associate humans with anything but trouble.
If you’d like to submit your own question to our team as part of our YouTube series, “Ask an RA", please send us an email at thinkelephants@gmail.com or send us a message on our Facebook page. 


Prehn-Kristensen, A., Wiesner, C., Bergmann, T. O., Wolff, S., Jansen, O., Mehdorn, H. M., ... & Pause, B. M. (2009). Induction of empathy by the smell of anxiety. PLoS One4(6), e5987.

Stoeger, A. S., Mietchen, D., Oh, S., de Silva, S., Herbst, C. T., Kwon, S., & Fitch, W. (2012). An Asian Elephant Imitates Human Speech. Current Biology.

No comments:

Post a Comment