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Elephant behavior provides new insights into human evolution

Human beings are known for their complex social behavior, diverse communication skills, and highly developed tool use. Researchers have long been fascinated by the evolution of these traits, and a recent study from the Max Planck Institute has now offered a unique perspective on the matter. 

The study proposes that human evolution might resemble the process of animal domestication, where less aggressive animals are favored through natural selection. In a similar vein, human evolution may be the result of selecting for more prosocial and cooperative individuals, who are more likely to interact with others and form complex communities where learning from one another is possible.

However, according to study first author Limor Raviv, the theory of self-domestication is difficult to prove. “This is because only one other species besides humans has been argued to be self-domesticated: bonobos.” 

Raviv and her colleagues sought to explore whether elephants could serve as the first non-primate animal model for self-domestication. In doing so, they investigated similarities between elephants, bonobos, and humans, and conducted genetic analyses to identify potential underlying mechanisms.

The research team discovered that elephants exhibit many of the hallmarks of domestication. Like humans and bonobos, elephants display low levels of aggression, high levels of empathic and prosocial behavior, an extended juvenile period, and increased playfulness and curiosity. 

Elephants are known to form coalitions, “babysit” calves, provide protection and comfort to others, and aid dying or ill members of their herds – and even occasionally outsiders. Elephants also demonstrate self-awareness and sensitivity to the needs and wants of others.

Another key aspect of domestication is the ability to learn from one another. In elephants, behaviors that are often innate in other animals – such as diet selection or raising offspring – are socially transmitted. Elephants also possess a sophisticated multimodal communication system with a wide-ranging vocal repertoire, including trumpets, roars, and low-frequency rumbles. 

For instance, elephants in Kenya have different alarm calls for humans and bees, and their diverse and combined calls even exhibit signs of grammar. Additionally, the researchers identified several candidate genes associated with domestication in elephants.

Raviv and her team speculate that self-domestication in elephants could be linked to their enormous size and relative strength. “This means that elephants are generally less worried about evading or fighting other animals for their survival,” explained Raviv. “This kind of ‘safe environment’ could relax selective pressures for aggression, free cognitive resources, and open up more opportunities for exploration, communication, and play.”

The findings have important implications for future research in other species. “Our hypothesis of self-domestication in elephants has exciting potential for future research in other species,” said Raviv. “It can inform our understanding of the evolution of prosocial behavior across evolutionarily distant species, providing important insights into convergent evolution.” 

The identification of elephants as a possible model for self-domestication broadens our understanding of the factors that contribute to the development of prosocial behaviors and offers a fresh perspective on the evolution of complex social structures.

About elephants

Elephants are the world’s largest land mammals, and their unique characteristics have captured the interest of scientists and wildlife enthusiasts alike. 


Elephants possess several distinctive features:

  1. Trunk: The trunk, or proboscis, is a fusion of the upper lip and nose. It is a highly flexible and muscular organ used for various purposes such as breathing, smelling, drinking, and grasping objects.
  2. Tusks: The tusks are elongated incisor teeth, which continue to grow throughout an elephant’s life. They are used for digging, stripping bark from trees, and as weapons in fights or defense.
  3. Ears: Elephant ears are large and thin, helping with thermoregulation by dissipating heat. The ears also play a role in communication, as elephants can detect low-frequency sounds through the skin and bones of their skull.
  4. Size: Elephants are massive, with the African Elephant reaching up to 13 feet in height and weighing up to 14,000 pounds, while the smaller Asian Elephant can reach 11 feet in height and weigh up to 11,000 pounds.


Elephants are known for their complex social structures, intelligence, and emotional depth. They live in matriarchal family groups called herds, led by the eldest female. Elephants exhibit remarkable memory and are known to mourn the death of their kin. They communicate using a wide range of vocalizations, including infrasound, which can travel over long distances.


Elephants are herbivores, feeding on a diverse diet of leaves, grasses, fruits, and bark. They consume up to 300-600 pounds of food per day and need to drink large quantities of water, up to 50 gallons, to stay hydrated.

Conservation Status

Elephant populations are under threat due to habitat loss and poaching for their ivory tusks. The African Elephant is listed as Vulnerable, the African Forest Elephant is classified as Endangered, and the Asian Elephant is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. Conservation efforts include habitat protection, anti-poaching measures, and raising awareness about the importance of elephants to their ecosystems.


Elephants are fascinating creatures that play a crucial role in their ecosystems. By understanding their taxonomy, anatomy, behavior, and conservation status, we can better appreciate the unique qualities that make them the gentle giants of the animal kingdom.

The research is published in the journal PNAS.


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