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Why Elephant Social Lives Are More Complex Than Ours

Updated June 15, 2020 1.5k views12 items

Elephants are one of earth's most remarkable and complex animals, but not everyone stops to consider the ways elephants are very human. They are highly intelligent creatures that exist in highly developed familial societies. Elephant social structures are full of rich relationships and interactions, which could lead some people to ask themselves, "are elephants more complex than humans?"

It's a tough question to answer, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that elephant social lives are as complex as our own. In some ways they are even more complex, and it's important to take into account the importance of their relationships whenever discussing conservation. These creatures form lifelong bonds with each other, work together to solve issues, and even comfort each other when things aren't going well, or when one of their own dies. They are highly intelligent, and some would even go as far to say that they have empathy for each other. Who knows, maybe studying these wonderful giants could teach us a thing or two about the inner workings of our own social lives.

  • They Respectfully Mourn The Dead

    Video: YouTube

    It is unsure if elephants can truly comprehend the concept of mortality, but there is some evidence to suggest elephants can feel significant grief at the loss of a life. It is rare for elephants to ignore the corpse of one of their own and they are even known to stop and contemplate human remains, but won’t stop for anything else. When a family comes across a deceased elephant, they will gather around and gently caress and examine the corpse with their trunks. They mourn in silence, seldom vocalizing during this process. On occasion elephants will cover the corpse with leaves or dirt.

    Amazingly, elephants have even been recorded respecting specific grave sites. One story describes and elephant that was butchered for meat, only to have their family arrive and return some of the fallen elephants’ bones to the location that it was killed. This is an anecdotal example, but it could serve as evidence to some about the significance of death for elephants.

  • Elephants Build Lifelong Relationships

    It can’t be said enough, elephants are remarkably social creatures who have the capacity to develop deep, long-lasting relationships with each other. Family groups are crucial to elephant society, but they can also hold loose associations with other groups as well. They can keep in contact with close friends over long distances, and will greet each other after a long time apart. These relationships can last a lifetime and begin at a very early age

  • An Elephant Can Be An Introvert Or An Extrovert

    Like humans, individual elephants are extremely complicated. Elephants have the most developed temporal lobes of any land animals besides humans. The temporal lobe is a section of the brain responsible for many things, including processing and storing information. This gives further credence to the idea that an elephant never forgets.

    The similarities to humans doesn’t stop there, however. Elephants personalities vary wildly from individual to individual, meaning elephants can be introverts or extroverts. Some can be painfully shy, while others extremely social. As it turns out, some elephants can even be downright jerks, further evidence that we’re not so different.

  • They Comfort Stressed Out Friends

    Elephants are known for being one of the most empathetic creatures alive, and researchers have shown that elephants are very attuned to each others emotions. When an elephant gets stressed out, they exhibit certain behaviors such as trumpeting, spontaneous defecation, and an intense flaring of the ears. 

    When these symptoms emerge, nearby elephants will rush to their aid and begin comforting the stressed companion. They will often pat the stressed elephant with their trunk, especially around the mouth and genitals, to reassure them that everything is okay. In extreme cases, multiple elephants will gather and creative a protective circle around the distressed elephant.