Researchers have found that these endangered animals can pick out larger quantities of an item just by using their nose, and that discovery could help conserve animals in the wild.

By Zee Krstic
Andrew Linscott / Getty Images

Elephants are some of the most majestic creatures around: Their awe-inspiring stature aside, they're known for being incredibly smart, and scientists have long established that these gentle giants have an advanced sense of sight and have amazing brain power, particularly when it comes to short-term memory. According to new research, however, elephants may also be equipped with special olfactory abilities that enable them to approximate the quantity of foods around them—down to minute differences that even humans would have trouble identifying. The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, sheds new light on the ways that elephants navigate the world around them, which could help conservationists in the future. 

While scientists have largely understood that animals, in general, often make judgements about food using visual cues, this new research is among the first to discover how a sense of smell could be guiding animals to larger quantities of food and sustenance. Researchers led by professionals from Hunter College in New York City tested a small herd of elephants in a facility in northern Thailand, discovering that the elephants were able to distinguish between different amounts of the same food using just their nose. 

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Splitting the elephants into different groups, researchers offered the animals two different covered buckets containing different amounts of sunflower seeds—the lids had holes poked out, however, so the elephants could catch a whiff. The ratios of seeds used in the experiment was vastly different across 10 trials, but the elephants consistently chose the bucket with more seeds. To be sure of their findings, researchers also used different kinds of buckets—metal and plastic included—and made sure that seeds were on equal heights within the buckets as well, but the results remained the same. 

"Remarkably, when we put two different quantities in the buckets, the elephants consistently chose the quantity that had more over less," Joshua Plotnik, the lead researcher, told the New York Times. The elephants were more successful in choosing the larger quantity of food when the differences between the amounts were greater, but they were still able to detect higher amounts of seed if the ratio remained the same. Researchers tell the Times that they plan to see if they can replicate the results in a bigger trial with more elephants, including those in the wild, which could help environmentalists develop new and improved ways of conserving wildlife in the future.

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