Elephants: Nature’s Oddity May Be Doomed For Extinction

November 13, 2022 at 7:45 p.m.


I have written about elephants before and found them mysteriously intelligent and exceptional animals.

There has been recent research that makes elephants even more fascinating. They are a reminder of what prehistoric animals were like and elephants may be a lot smarter than we are. Second, their trunks have been found to have even more exceptional properties. Third, because elephants can weigh as much as eight tons, they should be particularly prone to cancer, but they are not. Moreover, unlike a number of animals, elephants are attentive, social and generally non-aggressive.

Intelligence

An elephant's brain is the most sizeable of all, it weighs just over 5 kg or 11 pounds.  The human heart 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 is more capable than a bloodhound's nose and able to smell water from several miles away.  

The nose or trunk is both 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, hold a paint brush or suction up fragile tortilla chips.  

A recent study reported that elephants had more facial neurons than any other land mammal, which might contribute to trunk dexterity and other anatomical abilities.  Facial neurons help elephants employ their trunks.

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 uproot trees and lift up to 300 kg (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 billions, perhaps trillions 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 make a protein that senses damage.  

While humans have one copy of the gene, elephants have 20 copies. 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 (overgrown versions of the upper lateral incisors) designed for defense may be the reason for the elephant's eventual demise. In Asia, it is estimated that less than 50,000 elephants remain. Elephants are also a step further from extinction in Africa.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected]

I have written about elephants before and found them mysteriously intelligent and exceptional animals.

There has been recent research that makes elephants even more fascinating. They are a reminder of what prehistoric animals were like and elephants may be a lot smarter than we are. Second, their trunks have been found to have even more exceptional properties. Third, because elephants can weigh as much as eight tons, they should be particularly prone to cancer, but they are not. Moreover, unlike a number of animals, elephants are attentive, social and generally non-aggressive.

Intelligence

An elephant's brain is the most sizeable of all, it weighs just over 5 kg or 11 pounds.  The human heart 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 is more capable than a bloodhound's nose and able to smell water from several miles away.  

The nose or trunk is both 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, hold a paint brush or suction up fragile tortilla chips.  

A recent study reported that elephants had more facial neurons than any other land mammal, which might contribute to trunk dexterity and other anatomical abilities.  Facial neurons help elephants employ their trunks.

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 uproot trees and lift up to 300 kg (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 billions, perhaps trillions 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 make a protein that senses damage.  

While humans have one copy of the gene, elephants have 20 copies. 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 (overgrown versions of the upper lateral incisors) designed for defense may be the reason for the elephant's eventual demise. In Asia, it is estimated that less than 50,000 elephants remain. Elephants are also a step further from extinction in Africa.

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  [email protected]

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