Elephants indeed are large, leathery, lumbering and loveable, a reminder of what prehistoric animals were like.

But there is more to elephants than alliteration. For one, elephants may be a lot smarter than we are. Second, their trunks have a number of exceptional properties. Third, because elephants can weigh as much as 8 tons, they should be particularly prone to cancer, but they are not. And unlike a number of animals, elephants are attentive, social and generally non-aggressive.



Intelligence

An elephant's brain is the most sizeable of all, weighing just over 11 pounds. The human brain weighs about 3 pounds. Although the largest whale is 20 times the size of an elephant, its brain is just under twice the size.

The need for such a large and complex organ becomes clear when considering their behavior and ability. Elephants are capable of a range of emotions, including joy, playfulness, grief and mourning. In addition, elephants can learn new facts, mimic sounds they hear, self-medicate, play with a sense of humor, perform artistic activities (paint), use tools, and display compassion and self-awareness.

Part of the reason is the structure of an elephant's brain. The neocortex is highly convoluted, as it is in humans, apes and some dolphins. This is generally accepted to be an indication of complex intelligence. The elephant is one of the few creatures (together with humans) that is not born with survival instincts, but needs to learn them during infancy and adolescence.

Elephants and humans have a similar lifespan, and plenty of time, approximately 10 years to learn before they are considered independent adults. Their behavior indicates that elephants can also identify language; if the voice belongs to a person who is likely to pose a threat, an elephant will switch into a defensive mode.



The Trunk

According to an article in the New York Times, an elephant's nose is the most unusual feature of them all. It is the oddest of all dangling appendages, actually a supernaturally strong, skin-covered slinky that has fine motor skills, sensitivity and caressability (for reassuring or comforting).

Elephants have more scent receptors than any other mammal; they can help soldiers avoid minefields in light of their ability to detect TNT. So sensitive is an elephant's trunk that it is more capable than a bloodhound's nose and able to smell water from several miles away. The nose or trunk is an upper lip and a nose, with two nostrils running through the whole thing.

At the trunk's tip, African elephants have two fingers while Asian elephants have one. The dexterity of the fingers allows an elephant the ability to deftly pick up a single blade of grass or hold a paint brush.

An elephant's trunk has eight major muscles on either side and 150,000 muscle bundles in all. It is so strong that it can push down trees and lift up to 660 pounds. The trunk can stretch and reach branches 20 feet high, and by extending out of the water like a snorkel, it enables an elephant to cross bodies of water too deep for other, less-equipped animals. As a water tool, the trunk can suck up to 10 gallons of water a minute and hold up to 2 gallons at a time.

While not related to the trunk, the elephant's large size ears help to flap the heat away.



Cancer

It takes millions, perhaps billions, of cells to compose an elephant. All of those cells arise from a single fertilized egg, and each time a cell divides, there is a chance for a mutation to occur, one that may lead to a tumor. Strangely, elephants are not more prone to cancer than smaller animals and research suggests that they get less cancer than humans.

Recently researchers reported that elephants protect themselves with a unique gene that aggressively kills off mutant or DNA-damaged cells. Elephants have evolved unusual p53 anticancer genes, the genes that makes a protein that senses damage. While humans have one copy of the gene, elephants have 20.

In elephants the p53 proteins switch to another gene called LIF6. It is even more potent in detecting damaged cells than the p53 variety. No other animal has that gene. Somewhere in the course of elephant evolution, a cellular mutation inserted a genetic switch to LIF6, enabling the gene to be activated by p53.



Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, due to poaching (ivory tusks) and habitat destruction, the elephant population is rapidly declining. The tusks designed to defend may end up being the reason for their eventual demise.

In Asia, it is estimated that fewer than 50,000 elephants remain. Elephants are also a step further from extinction in Africa. In the early 1800s, it was estimated there may have been 26 million elephants in Africa alone. Those numbers today are a tiny fraction of that population.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry. He has taught college courses on regulatory and compliance issues at Ivy Tech, Grace College and Butler University. Sherman has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge on all levels. Eclectic Science, the title of his column, will touch on famed doctors and scientists, human senses, aging, various diseases, and little-known facts about many species, including their contributions to scientific research. He can be reached by email at maxsherman339@gmail.com.