Asian elephant

Asian elephants have different personality traits just like humans

University of Turku
02-MAR-2018 - Researchers of the University of Turku, Finland, have studied a timber elephant population in Myanmar and discovered that Asian elephant personality manifests through three different factors. The personality factors identified by the researchers are Attentiveness, Sociability and Aggressiveness.

As is commonly known, people have different personalities, and the structure of human personality can be divided into five factors. Other species’ behaviour also differs between individuals: some are braver, more social, or aggressive than others. "These kinds of consistent differences in behaviour are called personality. Personality studies on other species than humans have so far focused on primates, pets and zoo populations, or on species that have a relatively short lifespan. Besides humans, personality studies on other long-lived species living in their natural habitat are rare", says Postdoctoral Researcher and the lead author of the study Martin Seltmann from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku.

The researchers of the University of Turku studied a semi-captive population of timber elephants in Myanmar and discovered that Asian elephants have three different personality factors: Attentiveness, Sociability and Aggressiveness. The researchers also identified that male and female elephants do not differ in these three personality factors. "Attentiveness is related to how an elephant acts in and perceives its environment. Sociability describes how an elephant seeks closeness to other elephants and humans, and how popular they are as social partners. Aggressiveness shows how aggressively an elephant acts towards other elephants and how much it interferes in their social interaction", describes Dr Seltmann.

Life-histories of Humans and Elephants Resemble Each Other

The researchers studied the personality of over 250 timber elephants living in their natural habitat in Myanmar. "The elephants work in the timber industry, pulling logs from one place to another. This is a very unique research environment and population, enabling us to study several hundreds of elephants", says Dr Seltmann.

All the elephants work with their own mahout, i.e. an elephant rider. This social relationship can last throughout the elephant's lifetime. Therefore, the mahouts know the behaviour of their elephant very well and can give detailed information on their personalities. "We met elephants that were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, they always tried to steal the water melons that were meant as rewards", says Dr Steltmann.

The researchers collected data for the study with questionnaires on the elephants’ personalities. The surveys were conducted in Myanmar in 2014–2017. The questions were directed to the mahouts and they had to assess the elephant’s behaviour according to 28 different traits. The mahouts assessed how often the elephant displayed a particular behaviour on a 4-point scale. "Elephants and humans have many similar characteristics in their life-history and behaviour. Among other things, elephants have a very long lifespan and give birth to a single calf at a time, who in turn needs the care of the mother and other females for a long time after birth. Living in complex social environments could be a reason why both species have developed such complex personality structures", says researcher Mirkka Lahdenperä from the University of Turku, who participated in the study.

The study sheds more light on how personality develops in a long-lived, social species. This research on Asian elephants can also facilitate the protection of the species as well as improve the well-being and management of individuals in the timber elephant population in Myanmar. 

This study is published in the scientific journal Royal Society Open Science.

Text: University of Turku