EleFact Friday: Captivity and the Brain

Maia under the treesWe’ve seen firsthand the impact that most captive environments have on elephants; it can cause them to exhibit stereotypical behaviors, encourage obesity and arthritis, contribute to early deaths of adults and babies, and lead to dozens of other negative consequences. After decades of studying the brains of elephants and other large mammals, scientists have determined that the organ has great sensitivity to its environment and that captivity actually impacts its structure and function. 

Research tells us that living in confined or barren environments that lack stimulation or social interaction seems to thin the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain involved in movement and cognitive function – including memory and decision making. Many captive scenarios cause capillaries to shrink, which deprives the brain of oxygen; neurons get smaller and their connections are compromised, causing confusion inside the brain. What that means is that captive elephants may process information less efficiently than those who live in natural environments. 

These stressful situations can also negatively affect the hippocampus and the amygdala, which process memory and emotion. It can elevate stress hormones and kill neurons, even disrupting serotonin levels in elephants. An imbalance of dopamine and serotonin can lead to stereotyping and other repetitive behaviors. 

Evolution allows for brains to be responsive to their environments, which means that life in inappropriate or abusive situations disrupts normal brain function – impacting large populations of elephants around the world. Significant evidence suggests that social contact, vast natural spaces, and enrichment are essential for elephants to live long lives where they utilize all aspects of their large brains. 

For more information on brain function in elephants, you can read the study here:


  1. REPLY
    Carey says

    Thanks.for sharing

  2. REPLY
    Jeanine says

    It’s the most unnatural thing on the planet to have animals ment to live in the wild endure a life in captivity. No wonder it affects them mentally and physically. I find it disgusting.

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