Deprecated: Hook custom_css_loaded is deprecated since version jetpack-13.5! Use WordPress Custom CSS instead. Jetpack no longer supports Custom CSS. Read the documentation to learn how to apply custom styles to your site: in /home/customer/www/ on line 6078
Pachyderm Artisans Amaze – In Scientio, Veritas

Pachyderm Artisans Amaze

Yo, lovely folks! Brace for easily one of the most amazing, mind-boggling (in a pleasant way) thing that you’ve ever seen. Watch this elephant as she paints (yes, you read that right!) a picture of an elephant holding a flower. Watch the slow, deliberate strokes she makes on the white canvas, gradually revealing the form to the gathered-around audience – who audibly gasp in surprise.

As the informative blurb after the video states:

…Her mahout talks to her throughout the process as his gentle touch gives her confidence. She focuses on her work and seems to enjoy the approval of the audience and, of course, the sugar cane and banana treats. All of her training has been reward based.

The mahout (trainer/caretaker) can be seen proffering the brush to the pachyderm, presumably dabbed in the appropriate color, but the actual painting – which includes utilization of the canvas space and positioning of the individual objects on it – is all the elephant herself. And this is not by far the only instance of elephant-created art. There are 65 elephants in a managed camp in Northern Thailand, of which 9 paint, according to the organization which has promoted these pachydermal artisans and raised money for their upkeep and conservation by selling prints of these artworks; these elephants have been featured on the National Geographic. They draw elephants, and sometimes they draw pretty flowers also. Here’s another one:

Of course, the question that runs through my mind is this ability essentially a matter of training – Thai art teachers have patiently taught these nine elephants, coaxing them with treats, and the mahouts’ touch may well guide them as they paint – or does this represent how they see themselves? I am reminded of a 2006 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS) of the USA, which dealt with self-recognition in elephants, a behavior most commonly present in humans and apes, and to some extent in dolphins (Plotnik et al., doi:10.1073/pnas.0608062103).

What made it even more interesting for me is the fact that it was done almost in my backyard, in the Bronx Zoo, with three of the four delightful Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) that they had at that time. (Declaration: I had written about it in a now-defunct personal blog.) See a photo from 2004, how totally cute the youngest one, Samuel R., was!

Samuel the Asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo.

This study used the mirror test, a test of self-awareness developed in late 1960s (Science, 167:86-7, 1970, January 2) by Gordon Gallup Jr, a biopsychologist at the State University of New York at Albany. The test estimates self-awareness by determining an animal’s ability to recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself, a behavioral property referred to as Mirror Self-Recognition (MSR). MSR is expressed in four different stages: (i) social response, (ii) physical mirror inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior (i.e., the beginning of mirror understanding), and (iv) self-directed behavior (i.e., recognition of the mirror image as self). The verification of this self-directed behavior comes from a ‘mark test’, whereupon the subject is marked imperceptibly with an odorless dye and observed if it spontaneously uses the mirror to locate the mark on its own body. Animals not exhibiting MSR tend to restrict themselves to stage 1 and 2.

The subjects of the PNAS study were Happy, Maxine and Patty, three gorgeous female adult (circa 35 years of age) Asian elephants housed in the Bronx Zoo, in the New York City. Everyday they were let out on a yard for a few hours for observation. The yard area was monitored by three video cameras stationed at different angles, one of the cameras being hidden in the mirror frame. The mirror, of course, had to be elephant-proofed; a 244 cm x 244 cm mirror was framed with steel support and bolted on the yard wall 30 cm off the ground. A non-reflective metal door was also installed, and was locked in either the open or the closed position depending on the experimental procedure.

Follow this link to the Supplementary Material to the article, which contains fascinating movies of these observations. As expected in stage 2, all three subjects showed investigative behavior of the mirror surface and frame including touching and probable sniffing. They explored the back of the wall using their trunks and also attempted to physically climb the mirror wall to look over and behind it, besides trying to get their trunks underneath and behind the mirror by kneeling down in front of it.

Again as expected in the later stages, their investigative behavior gradually became less frequent with more exposures to the mirror. Remarkably, none of them showed any sign of social interaction with their mirror images, such as species-typical visual, vocal, or agonistic displays. Reserved and dignified ladies, weren’t they?

All three elephants displayed self-directed behavior during the tests, including the mark test, such as bringing food to and eating right in front of the mirror (a rare location for such activity), repetitive, nonstereotypic trunk and body movements (both vertically and horizontally) in front of the mirror, and rhythmic head movements in and out of mirror view; such behavior was not observed in the absence of the mirror. They even indulged in self-examination of body parts such as ears or the oral cavity, commonly seen with apes.

The behavior of the elephants was strikingly similar to that of other animals who have demonstrated MSR. Although none of the elephants aimed social behavior at the mirror, they all, like the hominid apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans, but not gorillas or monkeys) and dolphins, exhibited exploratory and mirror-testing behavior before more explicitly self-directed activities.

A phylogenetic relationship between MSR and empathy has long been hypothesized, first by Gallup, and then from the ‘consolation behavior’ observed in apes in several studies (References available in the main article), as also has been a possible ontogenetic connection, as reflected in the co-emergence of MSR and ‘sympathetic concern’ during child development.

Dolphins and elephants, like the hominids, are highly empathic animals known for so-called ‘targeted helping’ [i.e., helping that takes the specific needs of others into account] aimed at both conspecifics (members of the same species) and humans. As with dolphins, there are numerous reports of elephants (with known social complexities in a herd) physically supporting or trying to lift up injured or incapacitated members. The authors concluded by saying, “Finding strong parallels among apes, dolphins, and elephants in both the progression of behavioral stages and actual responses to a mirror provides compelling evidence for convergent cognitive evolution. Perhaps MSR indexes an increased self–other distinction that also underlies the social complexity and altruistic tendencies shared among these large-brained animals.”

Given what we have learnt about animal behavior, as well as cognitive neurobiology, in the past decade, this is perhaps not surprising, but nevertheless, the instances of unusual intelligence in non-human animals never cease to pleasantly amaze me.

Plotnik JM, de Waal FB, & Reiss D (2006). Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103 (45), 17053-7 PMID: 17075063


  1. Atish Ganguly

    I found myself clapping with the crowd at the end of the performance, and what a performance it was ! What muscular control ! It even managed to appreciate the lack of paint on a particular line, and managed to retrace the line with complete fidelity. That same trunk can uproot a tree – can you imagine ? Boggles the mind. And a great review of the 2006 PNAS paper to boot. Kudos.

    • Kausik Datta

      That same trunk can uproot a tree – can you imagine ? Boggles the mind.

      Well, the hand that rocks the cradle does rule the world, does it not? 🙂 Thank you for the lovely comment, Atish. I like elephants – which is why I always wince when a movie depicts an elephant taking the fall… including even the fictional Oliphaunts in LOTR! If you are interested, this link has an informational PDF on elephants.

      • Atish Ganguly

        Thanks for the link to the PDF, Kausik. Duly saved. And more posts in a similar vein, please !

  2. Corbie

    Watching the elephant paint was absolutely amazing. She takes her time, thinks about placing the lines, and gets the details right.
    We’ve been so arrogant to assume that humans are the only beings that experience MSR and empathy.

    • Kausik Datta

      Thank you for your comment, Corbie.

      We’ve been so arrogant to assume that humans are the only beings that experience MSR and empathy.

      Thankfully, the accumulated data in cognitive neurobiology and animal behavior are slowly but surely challenging that assumption.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.