Known for their strong family bonds and intelligence, elephants have fascinated people across time and cultures. As the largest living land mammal, a male African bush elephant is typically over 3 meters tall and weighs an incredible 6.6 tons. Although poachers still kill around 100 African elephants each day, conservation groups are working to save elephant populations from extinction. Read on for a dozen things you might not know about elephants, from their long history as a political symbol to their legitimate firefighting skills.
1. Contrary to popular belief, elephants are not afraid of mice.
Cartoonists have long depicted the funny side-by-side of a giant elephant afraid of a tiny mouse. Zoologists and elephant trainers have conducted experiments to test whether elephants are really afraid of rodents, and it seems to be a myth. Mice themselves do not scare elephants, but the pachyderms have poor vision and can be extremely frightened if something suddenly rushes by. Elephants are probably more afraid of a mouse’s sudden movement than the mouse itself.
2. Wild elephants could have populated the United States, but Abraham Lincoln rejected the idea.
In 1861 President Lincoln received gifts from Siam’s King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, including elephant tusks and a handmade sword. The king of present-day Thailand also made an interesting offer: Mongkut suggested that Siamese send pairs of male and female elephants to the United States to breed in the forests. The Americans could then tame the wild elephants and use them for the economic benefit of the country. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, responded to Mongkut in 1862, graciously declining his offer. He told the king that since the US was already using steam power to efficiently move goods within the country, elephants just wouldn’t be practical.
3. Trunk sucking is the elephant equivalent of thumb sucking.
When baby elephants want to comfort themselves, they instinctively begin to suckle their trunks. Sucking on logs is also one way that a baby elephant can learn how to handle its trunk (which contains between 40,000 and 50,000 muscles). Although most elephants outgrow suckling behavior, like human babies, some adult elephants also suckle their trunks when they feel anxious.
4. Elephants have been the symbol of the Republican Party since 1874.
Although elephants were occasionally used as a symbol for Republicans during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast drew an elephant in an 1874 edition Harper’s Weekly, gets the credit for the animal’s association with the political party. In later cartoons, Nast continued to draw an elephant to represent the Republican Party, and other cartoonists adopted it and established the animal as a GOP symbol.
5. Barnum & Bailey once trained elephants to play baseball.
Baseball is America’s pastime. So why not teach elephants how to play the game? Thanks to the work of Barnum & Bailey’s elephant trainer Harry L. Mooney, the intelligent animals played their first ball game in 1912. Although playing baseball was just one of many tricks circus elephants learned, Barnum & Bailey took advantage of the concept of elephant baseball by using the image on posters to sell tickets to shows.
6. Some elephants have been convicted of murder.
Although elephants are usually thought of as gentle giants, they can attack and kill humans. Male elephants undergo a musth, a hormonal change that temporarily causes them to produce tons of testosterone, leading to aggression. But female elephants can also kill. In 1916, a Tennessee town accused an elephant named Big Mary of first degree murder for killing its handler. Big Mary, who worked for Sparks Circus, attacked her handler, possibly after he hit her with a bullhook while trying to eat a watermelon peel. Big Mary was convicted and sentenced to execution. Around 2,500 of the city’s residents gathered to watch Big Mary’s dramatic hanging, which included a 100-ton crane and chain that broke under her weight.
7. Elephants mourn death.
While we may not know exactly what elephants are feeling or how they process death, they seem to show signs of feeling grief when a member of their family (or another elephant) dies. When they see a dead elephant, they can vocalize, “hug” the dead animal with its trunks, or stay with the carcass for hours. Some elephants have also tried to bury the body by covering it with leaves and soil.
8. Trained elephants fight fires in Indonesia.
You probably won’t see an elephant ride a fire truck anytime soon, but elephants in Indonesia are an integral part of fighting fires. In 2015, several fires struck East Sumatra over a period of several months, so that 23 trained elephants from a conservation center went to work. With water pumps and hoses, the elephants helped patrol the land and made sure that no new fires were started.
9. When in Zambia, you may see some elephants strolling through your hotel lobby.
Some guests at Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia, Africa, get an unusual game viewing before leaving the lobby. Every year between October and December, elephant families walk through the lodge reception area to eat wild mango from a tree in the courtyard. The huge size of the elephants and the apparent indifference to the surroundings of the hotel lobby make for an impressive sight.
10. In 2015, scientists first registered elephants yawning.
Although scientists speculated that elephants were likely yawning, scientists at the University of California, Davis, recorded the first video of an elephant yawning. If you enjoy watching sleepy animals stretch and yawn, this is for you. Warning: extreme cuteness ahead.
11. Elephants were featured in YouTube’s first video.
On April 23, 2005, Jawed Karim made internet history when he uploaded the first video to an emerging video-sharing website. Karim, one of the founders of YouTube, posted an 18-second scene in which he stood in front of elephants in a zoo. In the video he talks about how cool the long trunks of elephants are. As of August 2019, the video has more than 74 million views.
12. Elephants love to nibble on old Christmas trees.
Zoo keepers in Tierpark Berlin, a zoo in Germany, feed unsold Christmas trees to their elephants in early January. The trees are certified as pesticide free and the elephants seem to be enjoying their special snack. Berlin isn’t the only place where elephants eat Christmas trees, however. The Prague zoos also pamper their elephants with the delicious conifers.