JUN 05, 2019 4:41 PM PDT

Elephants Can Discern Food Quantities With Just Their Noses

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

Elephants are some of the world’s most distinguishable animals, with their massive sizes and particularly long trunks being some of the primary takeaways concerning their physical appearance. But as it turns out, those lanky trunks they sport aren’t just for looks – they actually give these animals a finely-tuned sense of smell that exceeds even that of dogs.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Elephant olfaction has long been a topic of interest among animal experts, and with that in mind, it should come to no surprise to anyone that researchers have published a new study just this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) regarding it.

While you and I would need to use our eyes to discern the difference between two different quantities of food, it seems that elephants can achieve this feat with the sense of smell alone. Hunter College’s Dr. Joshua Plotnik and colleagues discovered this after conducting scent-centric experiments on Asian elephants at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

According to the paper, the researchers filled two separate buckets with varying quantities of sunflower seeds and then capped the buckets with lids to make the contents invisible to the elephants. They then poked holes in the lid so that the aroma of sunflower seeds would permeate the air around the buckets, allowing nearby elephants to sniff it out.

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One by one, the researchers observed as the elephants showed more interest in the bucket filled with more sunflower seeds than the bucket filled with less. To be sure that this wasn’t a fluke, the researchers rotated the buckets and continuously filled them with varying amounts of sunflower seeds with each run, but the results remained somewhat consistent regardless of these tweaks.

“Remarkably, when we put two different quantities in the buckets, the elephants consistently chose the quantity that had more over less,” Dr. Plotnik explained regarding the experiments.

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It’s worth noting that some of the elephants did sometimes choose wrong, but not as often as they chose correctly. The researchers found that the males picked the bucket with more sunflower seeds more often and that a more significant difference between the sunflower seed quantities improved the elephant’s chances of choosing the right one.

It remains to be seen how the elephants discern the larger food quantities by scent alone, but one can only speculate that perhaps a more substantial portion of food smells more pungent than a smaller amount.

Perhaps additional research regarding this phenomenon can garner some useful answers.

Source: Nature, NYTimes, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
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