EleFact Friday: Body Awareness in Elephants

Rana in the sunshineIn a previous EleFact, we discussed the idea that elephants are self-aware and potentially have the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror. This week, we’ll take that idea a step further by examining the ability of elephants to have body awareness, or an understanding of their place in an environment. 

Scientists have utilized something called the mirror self-recognition test to determine whether an animal can recognize their own reflections. A newer study expands upon this idea by asking if elephants recognize their bodies as obstacles to success in problem solving. A group of Asian elephants were asked to step onto a mat and pick up a stick attached to the mat by a rope, then pass the stick on to a trainer. In order to be able to make the handoff, the elephant has to realize that their body standing on the mat is an impediment to them completing the task. When standing on the mat, most elephants quickly learned that they had to step off the mat to hand over the stick. 

Joshua Plotnik, co-author of the study, said it is likely that self-awareness exists on a continuum, with various animals understanding the idea of recognition at different levels. “Elephants probably ‘see’ their world with their ears and trunks,” he said. But their understanding of the world comes from a greater combination of innate skills or understanding. “They have clearly recognized that their body can get in the way of something.” 

This test can possibly be used in conjunction with the widely cited mirror test to help measure cognition in elephants and other animals and could potentially help flesh out the continuum of body- and self-awareness. However, the study has a small sample size, measuring 12 Asian elephants in Thailand. As this research progresses, we suspect it will reinforce some of the things we believe about elephants – which include the ideas that they have an intuitive understanding of their environment and the individuals that make up that environment.


  1. REPLY
    Barb says

    Wonderful post! Thank you very much for helping us understand these sentient beings we adore.

  2. REPLY
    Terry says

    Of course they are intuitive and self- aware.!!! Everyone who works, trains, volunteers, and follows Sanctuary Brazil already know this!!! 😁😉

    Cool study.

  3. REPLY
    Carey says

    Thank you for this very interesting info

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