Our sanctuary residents are given plenty of time to explore the habitats, which means they often come into contact with native flora and fauna they may have not experienced before. This presents an interesting question for both the elephants at Elephant Sanctuary Brazil and other species in the wild: how do different animals know what plants are safe to ingest and which to stay away from?
The short answer that science has determined is remarkably simple: they just seem to know. Even animals who were born into captivity, like Guillermina, are equipped with natural instincts that are preprogrammed, so to speak, into their DNA. These instincts, paired with thousands of years of non-social, species-specific learning and evolution, eventually lead to the animals that we’re familiar with today knowing what is good and what isn’t. As far as the sanctuary goes, we actually wrote a detailed post about poisonous plants on our property back in early 2022.
Research has also shown that some toxic plants produce chemicals that allow elephants to understand, pre-ingestion, that they are toxic. “Volatile plant secondary metabolites” were found in certain species of plants that seemed to give off a particular smell that elephants could sniff out, alerting them to stay away. (Abstract to this study can be found here.)
The truth of the matter though is that sometimes elephants do actually eat food that should make them sick, but doesn’t. A five-year study of the invasive Sodom apple problem in Africa showed that as the invasive plant was taking over crops, elephants, impalas, and other native species could eat the eggplant-like fruit with little problem, helping to regulate its spread. It was determined that, because African elephants tend to browse as opposed to graze, they could withstand the poison of the apples because they primarily ate the woody plant and shrub pieces. (Research found here.)
Although a lot of research credits this knowing of what is good vs. bad to natural instincts, we still wonder if there is more to it. We all know that elephants are incredibly smart and able to learn quickly, which we can assume applies to diet and nutrition when given the opportunity to graze and forage. Like many other things, the magic of this species may just remain a mystery.
Photo of Mara snacking