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Elephants have a nose for quantity

07.06.2019 16:02

A new study co-authored by Branco Weiss Fellow Hannah Mumby and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) has found that elephants can use their sense of smell to compare small quantities of food.

In experiment, six Asian elephants were presented with two different opaque buckets with perforated lids, each containing a different number of sunflower seeds. The elephants were given ten seconds to engage with the buckets with their trunks. The buckets were then briefly retracted and presented again, this time with openable lids. With statistically significant frequency, the elephants chose the bucket with more seeds in it, indicating that they could smell the larger quantity.

There has been very little previous research on how animals might differentiate between quantities of food using other senses than sight, which may simply reflect human’s vision-centric bias. “The exciting thing about these experiments was thinking in terms of how elephants experience the world, rather than the way I do as a human,” said Dr. Mumby. “The ability of elephants to distinguish small differences is interesting when comparing them to other taxa, as detecting food sources and collecting other information from scents and chemical signals are widespread traits.”

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Read the paper on the PNAS website