EleFact Friday: The Power of Scent

This week’s EleFact will focus on the power of scent in the life of an elephant. For both Asian and African elephants, odor is an essential communicator of all types of information – both among individuals and between an elephant and its environment. Pheromones are used by animals to send chemical signals to other members of their species, often for the purpose of mating, and scent can direct elephants to food and away from danger. 

Asian elephants have two identifiable pheromones – one that signals a female’s readiness to mate and one that signals a heightened reproductive state in males. This chemical signaling is important in the mating process since, while musth occurs on a regular basis in males, female elephants only calf approximately every three to five years, due to their extended gestation and weaning period (which we talked about in a previous EleFact).

The elephant trunk can detect odors in breath, urine, and dung and studies are being done to determine how effective smell can be in detecting signals in saliva, mucus, and fluid from the ears. If saliva pheromones do exist to communicate with other elephants, that could explain some kinds of trunk-to-mouth actions that are observed. Studies have shown that individuals can tell the difference between the scent of large wild cat dung and that of other species that don’t regularly prey on elephants. For African elephants at least, this sort of perceived chemical threat can impact how they group together and which way they decide to move. 

Asian elephants can use odor to locate hidden food and can actually determine the quantity of food available through olfactory clues. African elephants have been shown to use scent cues to locate water. Both of these things suggest that odor plays an important role in foraging behavior. Some African elephants can keep track of out-of-sight family members by smelling their urine or dung. Male African bulls may avoid conflict with other males based on the secretions they make during musth. Recent experimental studies are working to determine if the scent of chili peppers can deter elephants from foraging for food among human crops. 

As studies continue to progress, we will likely discover more crucial elements of the power of scent in daily elephant life. If you would like to read more about these findings, you can view one of the important olfactory studies here:


  1. REPLY
    Carey says

    Very very interesting Thank you! I’m going to read the paper

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