Excerpted from Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse by Caitlin O’Connell. Out now from the University of Chicago Press.
In terms of cognitive processing, not only do elephants have the largest absolute brain size among land mammals, they also have the largest temporal lobe relative to body size of any animal, including humans. The temporal lobe is that portion of the cerebral cortex devoted to communication, language, spatial memory, and cognition. Given the temporal lobe’s relative size in the elephant, there is every reason to suspect that elephants may be capable of far more complex cognition than is currently understood or documented.
In fact, elephant brains contain as many cortical neurons as human brains and have larger pyramidal neurons (specialized neurons thought to play a key role in cognitive functions) than do humans, suggesting that elephants might have learning and memory skills superior to ours. On top of this, von Economo neurons (or spindle cells)—believed to be involved in social awareness and the ability to make quick decisions and thought to exist only in humans, great apes, and four species of dolphin—were recently discovered in elephant brains.
Considering that this long-lived, highly intelligent mammal has a huge temporal lobe, highly sophisticated neural circuitry, and the largest brain capacity relative to any other mammal, the elephant is a natural focus of cognition experiments. Scientists have made progress on assessing elephants’ visual, vocal, and olfactory discrimination, but other cognitive experimental questions are easier to pose than to investigate. Experimenting with elephants poses elephantine challenges. Scientists rely on white mice, zebra fish, and fruit flies as study animals for a reason—they are cheap to raise and house. It is easy to create a controlled environment for such experiments and to run repeated trials to generate robust data sets. Comparative cognition work has been done on pigeons, pigs, dogs, and primates, but scale up to a study with elephants and it becomes much more difficult to find enough study subjects and run repeated trials.