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Tool use in elephants

Elephants show a remarkable ability to use tools, often using their trunks like we use our arms.

They use branches to repel flies and even make appropriate tools by breaking longer branches into shorter ones. Researchers observed this behaviour in eight of 34 adult wild elephants in Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka, India .

They then presented to 13 captive elephants, maintained under a naturalistic system, branches that were too long or bushy to be effectively used as switches. The long branches were presented in two trials to each elephant and they were given five minutes to either attempt switching with the long branch, or modify the branch and switch with the altered branch. Eight of these elephants modified the branch on at least one trial to a smaller branch and switched with the altered branch. There were different styles of modification of the branches, the most common of which was holding the main stem with the front foot and pulling off a side branch or end with the trunk.

The scientists believe that fly switching with branches is a common form of tool use in wild Asian elephants when fly intensity is high. They conclude that their documentation of the manufacture of a tool by elephants, together with the fact that these animals have a volume of cerebral cortex available for cognitive processing that exceeds that of any primate species, would appear to place this animal in the category of great apes in terms of cognitive abilities for tool use and tool manufacture.

Elephant expert Joyce Poole says “On many occasions I have watched an elephant pick up a stick in its trunk and use it to remove a tick from between its forelegs. I have also seen elephants pick up a palm frond or similar piece of vegetation and use it as a fly swatter to reach a part of the body that the trunk cannot” .

Elephants also use sticks to scratch themselves. If an elephant cannot reach some part of his body that itches with his trunk, he doesn’t always rub it against a tree: he may pick up a long stick and give himself a good scratch with that instead. If one stick isn’t long enough he will look for one that is. If he pulls up some grass and it comes up by the roots with a lump of earth, he will smack it against his foot until all the earth is shaken off, or if water is handy he will wash it clean before putting it into his mouth. .

Elephants have been observed digging holes to drink water and then ripping bark from a tree, chewing it into the shape of a ball, filling in the hole and covering over it with sand to avoid evaporation, then later going back to the spot for a drink .

Elephants have also been known to drop very large rocks onto an electric fence either to ruin the fence or to cut off the electricity. 

Elephants have been known to intentionally throw or drop large rocks and logs on the live wires of electric fences, either breaking the wire or loosening it such that it makes contact with the earth wire, thus cutting off the electricity.


  • Hart B. L, Hart L. A, McCoy M and Sarath C. R 2001 Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching. Animal Behaviour, Volume 62, Issue 5, 839-84
  • Poole J 1996 Coming of Age with Elephants. Chicago, Illinois: Trafalgar Square. ISBN 034059179X.
  • Williams J. H 1950 Elephant Bill. Garden City, New York: Doubleday& Company.
  • Holdrege C 2003 The Flexible Giant: Seeing the Elephant Whole. Pe r s pe c t ives 2, Nature Institute.