Like Humans, Elephants Display Complex Personality Traits

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Just like humans, elephants display different personalities. One might be an attentive social butterfly, another an aggressive lone wolf.

A new study published in Royal Society Open Science found that Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) can be judged on three separate character traits – attentiveness, sociability, and aggressiveness. You can think of these as the “Big Five” (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience) of elephant personalities.

While other papers have looked at African elephants and captive populations, this seems to be the first to consider the temperament of wild (or, more accurately, partially wild) Asian elephants.

There are some 5,000 semi-captive elephants living in Myanmar, roughly half of which are employed in the timber industry. This status allows them to roam freely at night, having completed a day's work with their riders (mahouts). From a research point of view, this is an unusual but extremely useful set-up. The mahouts work closely with their elephant, getting to know and understand it inside-out. This can offer a detailed assessment of their behavior, while the elephants are able to engage in activities more typical of wild elephants, such as finding their own food, and mating whenever and with whomever they want.

For the study, the team collected data on more than 250 timber elephants by surveying the mahouts, who were asked to assess their elephant's behavior in regards to 28 personality traits on a scale of one to four. While acknowledging the fact that the mahouts' own personalities could affect the rating of their elephant's behavior and even the behavior itself, the researchers did notice some interesting trends.

First, there were three clear personality traits that could be used to explain an elephant's behavior.

"Attentiveness is related to how an elephant acts in and perceives its environment. Sociability describes how an elephant seeks closeness to other elephants and humans, and how popular they are as social partners. Aggressiveness shows how aggressively an elephant acts towards other elephants and how much it interferes in their social interaction," lead author Martin Seltmann explained in a statement.  

"We met elephants that were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, they always tried to steal the watermelons that were meant as rewards," he added.  

Two Asian timber elephants at play. John Jackson

Second, interestingly, there were no noticeable personality differences between male and female elephants. This is surprising given the gender dynamics of Asian elephant herds – females coexist in family units, whereas males tend to drift away from the herd during adolescence. 

Third, the researchers pointed out the similarities between human and elephant personalities, both of which have evolved to survive in complex social groups.

"Elephants and humans have many similar characteristics in their life-history and behavior," explained co-author Mirkka Lahdenperä. "Living in complex social environments could be a reason why both species have developed such complex personality structures."

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