Anyone who has ever adopted a cat or dog into the family knows that each pet is distinctive. One of your dogs, for example, may have loved to spend all day at your side, while another may have enjoyed some daytime hours to chill out by herself on her favorite couch. But when it comes to wild animals, we sometimes lump them together—all bison are bad-tempered, for example—forgetting that they, too, are individuals with varying personality traits.
In the science world, as well, the idea of nonhuman animals having diverse personalities has been controversial. Some say that the concept of personality solely belongs to humans and that attributing personality to other animals is anthropomorphization.
The majority of personality studies on species other than humans have traditionally focused on pets, primates and zoo animals, or on species that have relatively short life spans. Such investigations on long-lived species residing in their natural habitats are rare. But over the last few decades, we’ve begun to learn about and understand wild animals better, finding out that crayfish can be anxious, and trout can be shy.
Now, a groundbreaking paper published in the Royal Society Open Science journal shows that elephants have distinct and complex personalities just as humans do. And while other studies have looked at captive African and Asian elephant populations, this seems to be the first to consider the temperament of wild (or, more accurately, partially wild) Asian elephants.
Timber tuggers were study subjects
Elephants are among Earth’s most intelligent animals. They have highly evolved neocortices that are similar to those of humans, great apes and some dolphin species. They demonstrate a wide variety of behaviors associated with high levels of brainpower, including altruism, compassion, grief, mimicry, self-awareness and use of tools.
Asian elephants are slightly smaller than African elephants, the planet’s largest land animal. While the shape of an African elephant’s ears resembles the continent of Africa, an Asian elephant’s ears are smaller and rounded. They live in forested regions in India and throughout Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. About a third of Asian elephants are in captivity.
In Myanmar, there are approximately 5,000 semicaptive elephants, roughly half of which are employed pulling cut logs for the timber industry. They roam freely at night—engaging in activities more typical of wild elephants, such as finding their own food, and mating whenever and with whomever they wish—after having completed a day’s work with their riders, known as mahouts. Each elephant works with its own mahout, a social relationship that may last throughout the elephant’s lifetime. Because of this arrangement, the mahouts know the behaviors of their elephants very well and can provide detailed information about their personalities. From a purely research point of view, this rare but unusual setup is extremely useful.
For the recent study, scientists from Finland’s University of Turku collected data on 257 timber-industry elephants. Between 2014 and 2017, they surveyed the mahouts, asking them to assess each elephant’s behavior relative to 28 different adjectives on a scale of one (“very rarely”) to four (“most of the time”). These included traits such as affectionate (shown by an elephant rubbing its body or forehead against another elephant), confident (making decisions without hesitation), inventive (creating new tools), mischievous (such as swinging a trunk to spray mucus) and slow (moving in a relaxed, deliberate manner.)
While acknowledging that the mahouts’ own personalities could affect the rating of the elephants’ behaviors and even the behaviors themselves, the researchers did notice some interesting trends.
For human personality, a common model is based on five traits: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness. In the elephant study, the research team found that personality is expressed through three main characteristics: aggressiveness, attentiveness and sociability.
Trios of traits and takeaways
Aggressiveness is defined as aggressive, dominant or moody behavior toward other elephants and how much it interferes in social interactions. Attentiveness describes how an elephant acts in and perceives its environment: whether active, attentive, confident, obedient, slow or vigilant. Sociability relates to how an elephant seeks closeness with other elephants and humans, and how popular the individual is as a social partner. It encompasses affectionate behavior, friendliness toward elephants of the same sex, friendliness toward people, mischievousness and playfulness.
Some elephants were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, lead author of the paper Dr. Martin Seltmann said that some elephants “always tried to steal the watermelons that were meant as rewards.”
Secondly, the researchers discovered that male and female Asian elephants do not differ in these three personality factors, even though they have very different social tendencies. Female Asian elephants live in small family units with strong bonds between the group members. Group cohesion is of high importance. Little is known about the social life of male Asian elephants, as they tend to drift away from the herd during adolescence. It was expected that close relationships with other individuals would therefore be less important for males than for females. The research, however, showed that males have just as sociable personalities as females.
Thirdly, the researchers pointed out the similarities between human and elephant personalities, both of which have evolved to survive in complex social groups. Among other things, elephants have very long life spans (about 48 years) and give birth to a single calf at a time, who in turn needs the care of the mother and other females for a lengthy period after birth.
Not only does this valuable study shed light on how personality develops in such a long-lived, social species, it has the potential to help protect Asian elephants, improving the well-being and management of the individuals that work in the logging business in Myanmar.
The Asian elephant is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Its population has declined by an estimated 50 percent over the past 75 years, and it’s estimated that there are fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants left in the wild.
According to World Wildlife Fund, threats to wild Asian elephants include habitat loss from agricultural development and deforestation, as well as conflict with humans as the animals seek space and consequently raid crops grown close to their forest habitats.
Most illegal ivory today comes from African elephants, with tens of thousands poached each year. Nonetheless, male Asian elephants still do face the threat of poaching for the ivory trade (only males have tusks), and both males and females are threatened by the the growing trade in elephant skin, used for jewelry.
While it can be said that we humans do have a tendency to anthropomorphize other animals, scientific studies—such as this one from Finland into the behavioral patterns of Asian elephants—show that it’s not just our imaginations. We’re definitely not the only species in the animal kingdom to have individuals with distinct personalities.
Just take a look at my dog.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,