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This Elephant Peels Bananas Just Like Humans Do

An elephant in a zoo enclosure.
Credit: Cell Press/ Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin

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Elephants are big banana fans but tend to dispense with the finer points of the eating process. Most elephants devour bananas whole or even gorge on entire bunches at once. A new case study of an unusual elephant in Germany shows that, given the right circumstances, elephants can learn the complicated movements required to peel a banana like humans.

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Asian elephant Pang Pha, a resident of Berlin Zoo, has been captured showing off her unique peeling method in a mesmerizing video, which you can watch below. In the clip, Pang Pha uses her trunk’s dexterity and strength to rip the top off the banana, before carefully grasping a stray part of the peel and flinging the fruit free. The banana is quickly snaffled up; the peel is discarded (but carefully placed together in a tidy pile).

Pang Pha was not directly taught this skill and appears to have learned it by watching her caretakers at the zoo peel her food. The unusual behavior has been detailed in a new publication in Current Biology, which expands on the implications Pang Pha’s peeling has on our knowledge of elephants’ cognitive and manipulative abilities.

Watch Pang Pha the Asian elephant peel a banana.Video credit: ScienceX

Professor Michael Brecht, a researcher at Humboldt-University Berlin's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, commented, "What makes Pang Pha's banana peeling so unique is a combination of factors – skillfulness, speed, individuality and the putatively human origin – rather than a single behavioral element.”

Which bananas get peeled?

Brecht and colleagues were contacted by Pang Pha’s caretakers to discuss her strange talent. But upon presenting the elephant with fresh yellow–green bananas, they were disappointed to see the elephant fail to peel them. It was only once they realized that she reserves her unique talent for yellow–brown bananas specifically that they were able to record her in the act (in case you were wondering, Pang Pha rejects brown bananas entirely).

Pang Pha also shows a degree of peer pressure in her banana consumption. When a bunch of yellow–brown bananas are presented to Pang Pha’s herd, she will gorge on as many as possible – a more classical elephant behavior. She will however stash the last banana, which she peels on her own later. Pang Pha is the only Berlin Zoo elephant to engage in banana peeling. Why this lone elephant has adopted this behavior is unclear, although Brecht and the team note in their paper that Pang Pha was raised by hand by her caretakers.

If Pang Pha did learn her inclination for peeling from humans, it adds to a substantial body of behavioral evidence showing that elephants are smart enough to interpret and learn from human behaviors. Studies on African elephants show that the animals can decipher human gestures. Pang Pha’s copying of complex human behavior, however, remains a highly unusual skill.

In their discussion, the authors reflect on whether Pang Pha’s actions suggest that habits and skills are usually passed on through family members. "Elephants have truly remarkable trunk skills and that their behavior is shaped by experience," says Brecht.

Reference: Kaufmann LV, Becker R, Ochs A, Brecht M. Elephant banana peeling. Current Biology. 2023;33(7):R257-R258. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.02.076

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Cell Press. Material has been edited for length and content. 

Meet the Author
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Ruairi J Mackenzie
Senior Science Writer