Maia prefers palm fronds to palm nuts, but we do find them in her dung from time to time. Guida loved palm nuts and, when they first arrived, Maia would knock down palm trees, and Guida would delight in eating most of them while Maia focused on the leaves. One of the elephants’ favorite palm nuts is from the Macaw Palm, locally nicknamed “chiclete cuiabano.” Chiclete cuiabano translates as “the gum of people of Cuiabá” because part of the tree is collected and used as chewing gum.
We have quite a few types of palms here – at least six or seven. Some of them produce smaller palm nuts (sometimes referred to as palm fruits), which the elephants prefer. One type of palm produces large nuts, which we haven’t seen any of the elephants eat before.
After Maia visited the burned area of Yard 5, we noticed that she had some undigested large palm nuts in her dung. There were around 20-25 palm nuts, approximately 3”-4” (7-10 cm). They are edible, but it’s not surprising that they weren’t digested – elephants digest their food with around 50% efficiency. The only reason it is notable is that she has never eaten those palm nuts before.
The palm she was eating is from the Attalea speciosa (commonly called babaçu) tree. We aren’t sure how those palm nuts specifically react to fire, but we do know those trees are highly resistant to fire. In general, fire can melt the endocarp layer (which is an inner layer whose sole purpose is to protect the seed from seed-eaters) of many types of palms. The heat of a fire can also dry them, making them more palatable to many species. Additionally, fire helps many plants (including palms) by increasing germination rates. Passing through an elephant’s digestion track is also known to increase the likelihood of a seed germinating.
Sometimes we notice the elephants will self-medicate. We don’t think that was the case here. While the fruit is high in vitamin E, it isn’t known for any applicable medicinal uses. We suspect the fire-related changes to the palm nuts made them more palatable. Our other guess is Maia chose not to go an entire day without snacking, so she ate the nuts just because they were the best food available at the moment.