Understanding Human Evolution Using Elephants
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Hallmarks of domestication
The team found that elephants show many hallmarks of domestication. Similar to humans and bonobos, they have low levels of aggression, high levels of empathic and prosocial behaviour, an extended juvenile period, and increased playfulness and curiosity. Elephants form coalitions, ‘babysit’ calves, offer protection and comfort to others, and help dying or ill members of their herds—and even the occasional outsider. There is also evidence that elephants are both self-aware and sensitive to the needs and wants of others.
Another important hallmark is elephants’ ability to learn from each other. Behaviours that are often innate in other animals—such as what to eat or how to raise offspring—are socially transmitted in elephants. Elephants also have a sophisticated multimodal communication system with an extensive vocal repertoire, ranging from trumpets and roars to low-frequency rumbles. For example, elephants in Kenya have different alarm calls for humans and for bees. Their varied and combined calls even show signs of grammar.
Finally, the team found several candidate genes associated with domestication in elephants.
The authors propose that self-domestication in elephants could be related to their massive size and relative strength. “This means that elephants are generally less worried about evading or fighting other animals for their survival”, Raviv explains. “This kind of ‘safe environment’ could relax selective pressures for aggression, free cognitive resources, and open up more opportunities for exploration, communication, and play.”
“Our hypothesis of self-domestication in elephants has exciting potential for future research in other species”, concludes Raviv. “It can inform our understanding of the evolution of prosocial behaviour across evolutionarily distant species, providing important insights into convergent evolution.”
Reference: Raviv L, Jacobson SL, Plotnik JM, Bowman J, Lynch V, Benítez-Burraco A. Elephants as an animal model for self-domestication. PNAS. 2023;120(15):e2208607120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2208607120
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