A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Nothing Dumbo about Elephants

“Mom, I think we’re going the wrong way!”

Elephants are very smart. And it’s true that they never forget. But they do sometimes argue over what’s the best way to that nice watering hole the family went to last year.

(Not that different from the arguments we humans have in the car about which road we took to that restaurant last year!)

Elephants live in large, extended families, and have complex discussions about where to go, how to get there, and anything and everything else to do with what’s going on in the family.

They communicate with other families over long distances, too, and do a lot of other “human-like” things: elephant babies suck their trunks in the same way as humans such their thumbs; and grown-ups flirt with their eyes.

It’s all described in a new book, The Amboseli Elephants, by a group of people who have spent nearly 40 years – the longest study ever – observing their behavior at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

When it comes to deciding which way to go, negotiations often begin with an announcement from one of the family known as the “let’s go” rumble. The elephants then engage in lengthy exchanges until a consensus is reached, and then the herd moves off in the agreed direction.

“It’s wonderful to watch and a real process of negotiation,” said Phyllis Lee of Stirling University, Scotland, who is co-editor of the book. The whole discussion can take up to an hour more.

Another part of the book describes elephant empathy. For example, when an adult sees a youngster approaching an electric fence, she’ll wince noticeably, knowing that the young one is going to get a nasty shock … and feeling for her.

The more we watch other animals, the more we understand that we’re all a lot more similar than we used to think.

There’s an interview with members of the team at New Scientist magazine. (You need a subscription to read it all.) But you’ll also find out more at the Amboseli Research Project.