In honor of Sunday’s National Elephant Appreciation Day, a very important holiday founded by pachyderm lover Wayne Hepburn in 1996, we chatted with Adam Stone, director of elephant husbandry at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tenn., about why they are among the animal kingdom’s most fascinating creatures. From elephants' vast intellectual capacity to their powerful trunks and adorable babies, take a look at what makes them so special.
1. They’re hyper social (like us!) and form strong bonds.
“Elephants are highly social and form extremely rich social bonds,” Stone said. “They do have what we’d refer to as culture. They have their own language, and they have dialects within their shared language.”
"[They're] highly intelligent, gregarious and gentle by nature. It's not surprising that they would provide friendships across species," he added.
2. They paint (kind of).
“For the most part, if an elephant has its choice of things to do without any reinforcement, it’s probably not going to walk over to a canvas. It’s more likely to eat the canvas and eat the paint brush,” Stone said. “The interesting thing is that it goes to show how much they can learn. Those paintings are done with very subtle cues, oftentimes the trainer’s hand is on the backside of the elephant’s ear, directing with the finger along the ear while seemingly out of view.”
3. They have big brains.
"They have the largest brains of any land animal in pure mass: 10 to 11 pounds and, in relation to body size, it takes up a huge amount of body space," Stone said.
At birth, an elephant's brain size has only reached 35 percent of its potential size. That means babies have a huge capacity for learning as they grow and develop (and slip and slide).
Elephants are also known for their memories because their hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are stored, is so large.
4. Their trunks have 40,000 muscles and tendons.
"It takes about a year for them to learn how to use it," Stone said. "With a baby elephant, you will see that its trunk looks like a worm on the end of a hook, even when they’re nursing. They’ll trip over it; it’s really complex."
5. They respect their elders.
Elephant society is matriarchal, with the oldest female leading the group. "This is not your typical social hierarchy that’s based on aggression," Stone said. "It's based on respect. They follow the oldest female because she has the most memory and knows where the safe haven is, where the food is, and where to go in a storm."
6. They're into family.
"If you're a female, you have grown up and lived in that group your entire life," Stone said. "You're always surrounded by your sisters, mother, even great grandmother, so that's the basis for this incredibly rich social structure. From moment one the herd is surrounding them, touching them. So much of their social bonds are built on contact and touch."
7. They weigh thousands of pounds and still manage to be quick and nimble.
“You see this large creature and think of it as this cumbersome animal, but it can be extremely nimble, flexible, and fast,” Stone said. “They can move up to 35 mph, stop on a dime and travel over mountain ranges extremely sure-footed. I've seen elephants put their back legs up over the top of their ear. You often hear about an accident with an elephant, but there are very few accidents. They know where they are in time and space.”