Elephant behaviors

Elephants proving they’re smart and we can’t ignore it

Elephants really are smarter than we believe. There have been multiple studies done over the years on elephants to measure their IQ and cognitive behaviours, all of which have come to the same conclusion – they’re much smarter than we believe.

The results of the studies show that elephants and thereby also wild elephants are capable of thinking, planning and remembering, all at a level not seen in almost any other species.

They also display behaviours that indicate they’re self-aware – something only humans and our closest relatives (chimpanzees, dolphins and others) are known to do. Read on to find out more!

How smart are Elephants?

A study done by Dr. Joyce Poole and published in the journal “Science” in 2006 looked at the problem-solving abilities of elephants. Elephants were given a task in which they had to figure out how to get to a food reward that was hidden behind a door.

They were able to solve the problem and get to the food, and they worked out how to do it faster as time went on.

Another study done by Dr. Joshua Plotnik and published in the academic journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) in 2011 studied an elephant’s ability to recognise itself in a mirror.

Many animals that live socially, such as dolphins, great apes and magpies, have been shown to recognise themselves when they look into a mirror.

However, elephants are not known for their sociality, except in some cases family groups.

This is why this 2011 study was so important – it shows that not only do they recognise themselves but are also able to see the reflection of other elephants, which was never before shown.

“Elephants’ Incredible Intelligence | Wild Files with Maddie Moate | BBC Earth” by BBC Earth on YouTube.

Elephants have a brain that is larger than any other land animal

The average human brain weighs about three pounds. In comparison, an elephant’s brains weigh in at a hefty 11-13 pounds, making it the largest brain of any land mammal.

The elephant brain is extremely complex and one study done by researchers at the University of Vienna shows that it has a convoluted structure similar to humans and chimpanzees, which means it’s better than any computer we use today.

Elephants are able to understand that they’re separate from other elephants and can see them as separate individuals.

This was shown in the study mentioned above where elephants were able to see themselves in a mirror and also recognise other elephants.

They showed behaviours such as pointing their trunk at the other elephant in the mirror, which is something only human children do before they can talk.

They can understand human body language and mimic human voices

In a study done by the University of Vienna in Austria in 2009, they showed that Asian elephants can understand what’s going on in a human’s head when we talk to them.

In this experiment, an elephant was trained to understand how humans communicate with each other through body language and was able to follow the human gaze and understand where he was looking.

In another study, done by the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, they showed that elephants can also mimic human voices.

They did this by playing recordings of human voices to elephants and found that the elephants would change their trumpeting sounds to match the sound of the human voice.

This is attributed to elephants understanding to identify languages.

Elephants are among the most emotional creatures in the world. They have been known to rescue other animals such as trapped dogs and cats.

Nancy Phillips

Elephant can use tools

They can use tools, such as sticks to get at food that are not a part of their natural environment.

They’re also able to remember where they put the tools and how to use them.

An Elephant painting a tree. Image source: Etsy.
An Elephant painting a tree. Image source: Etsy.

They can form family groups with social bonds

They can form close-knit elephant family groups with deep social bonds, including friendships among females that last a lifetime.

Elephants have been known to help each other, especially the weak and sick members of their groups.

They can grieve death

In a study by a University of Chicago professor in 1986 that was published in the journal “Animal Behaviour”, they looked at how elephants responded to the death of a group member.

After the matriarch died, many of the females in the group would go to where she died and stand over her body for hours.

They would often smell, touch and visibly mourn the loss of their friend.

Elephants can demonstrate self-awareness and empathy for others

In a study done by Joshua Plotnik from 6 elephants were given the mirror test – to see if they could distinguish between their own reflection and that of another individual.

They did this by drawing an X on the mirror with chalk to see if they recognised themselves in the mirror.

They passed just one elephant this test, but when they were given the red dot test – where a physical mark is placed on their heads without them seeing it being done so – all 6 elephants passed the test which shows they were self-aware and showed empathy.

Elephants can show guilt, shame and pride

In a series of tests done by an Emory University professor from Atlanta from 1989 to 1991, it was shown that elephants have a sense of right and wrong.

In one experiment, it was shown that an elephant would refuse to continue a task if they were instructed to hit a rubber hose with their trunk, even when it came at the cost of food.

They also showed guilt by showing behaviours such as tucking their trunks between their legs and turning away from other elephants who could see the hose, which is what children do after they’ve done something wrong.

They also showed shame by becoming submissive and loose their postures.


Elephants are a fascinating species to study. In the past, they were thought of as dumb animals who could not do anything except for humans and now we know that’s far from the truth!

Elephants have demonstrated self-awareness and empathy which has been attributed to their ability to understand other languages in addition to their capacity for tool use.

They can also show guilt, shame and pride – all signs of a developed sense of right or wrong.

FAQ on Elephant intelligence

What is the IQ of an elephant?

The elephant is one of the most intelligent creatures on Earth and they can learn many new behaviours. They use their brain to solve problems such as finding food, using tools and taking care of sick family members. Actual IQ is unknown.

Are elephants self aware?

Yes, elephants can demonstrate self-awareness and empathy for others.

Can elephants understand humans?

There are many stories of elephants understanding what humans say and they interact with us, but it has never been measured if they understand.

Can elephants paint?

Yes, there have been a few cases where an elephant was taught to paint by using their trunk as the brush.

Do elephants really never forget?

Elephants are known to never forget, which is why it’s important not to hurt them because they’ll remember for a long time.

Do elephant have better memory than humans?

There is no evidence that elephants have better memory than humans, but they are known to remember things for a very long time.

By Olivia Garcia

Olivia Garcia is originally from Texas. She fell in love with Elephants during a trip to Africa in the early 2010s, where she got to see these beautiful creatures up close. She spent a total of 6 months at the Desert Elephants Volunteer Project in Namibia, living amongst elephants.

Today, she lives with her husband and two kids in Texas. Olivia dreams about one day taking her kids to Africa to show them where she fell in love with elephants!

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