Asian Elephants | Sunday Observer

Asian Elephants

The idea of animals having personalities is questionable. Some say that the concept of personality is distinctly human, and that attributing personality to animals is anthropomorphisation (to attribute or ascribe human form or behaviour). However, many researchers of science define personality in terms that can easily apply to other species.

In the most general sense, personality is defined as consistent differences in behaviour between individuals, these various differences in behaviour can be distinguished as personality traits: boldness, sociability, and so on.

If one individual tends to be bold and curious and another tends to be cautious and reserved, it can be said that these two individuals have different personalities.

Many scientists studying animal understanding are focusing their efforts on animal personalities, and there’s much evidence that animals do indeed have personalities. One team, hailing from the University of Turku, has recently published a new study on personality differences in Asian elephants.

The Turku team studied a group of over 250 Asian elephants in Myanmar. They were drawn to studying elephants specifically because they are highly social, long-lived, and demonstrate impressive reasoning abilities. Data on personality in animals with these characteristics is currently still rather scarce.

For human personality, a common model is based on 5 personality traits: neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and extraversion.

In the elephant study, the team found that personality is expressed through three main traits: Attentiveness, Sociability and Aggressiveness

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, describes Dr Seltmann.

The elephants studied were used by the Myanmar natives for pulling logs of cut timber. Elephant riders (mahouts) were asked to contribute to the study by giving rankings for each elephant based on 28 different adjectives describing behaviour.

Statements like the following were ranked for how well they applied to each elephant:

“Elephant seems to listen (no ear flaps) closely to everything mahouts say or do.”

“Elephant likes to make friends with other elephants of the same gender.”

“Elephant causes harm or potential harm to other elephants; eg: barks, charges, bites, kicks.”

Having rankers that were experienced and familiar with the elephants was important for the study. The mahouts were ideal choices because each one had a close relationship with the elephant he was assigned to, and could provide a lot of insight into the individual personality of his elephant.

The findings showed clear personality differences, and these differences were even observable during the course of the study.

“We met elephants that were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, they always tried to steal the water melons that were meant as rewards,” said Dr Steltmann.

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To be continued....