An Elephantine Test of Character

Elephant personality tests reveal unique traits

Elephants are people, too! Or, at least, their personalities have a similar structure to those of humans. Different people have different personalities; some people are more social, while others are braver, or more aggressive. Personality is made of these consistent differences in individuals’ behaviors. Over the past few decades, behavioral scientists have corroborated this concept through personality studies. However, most existing studies have focused on humans, primates, or zoo populations. Personality data for long-lived, highly-social wild mammals with complex cognitive abilities are still rare.

To close this gap, researchers at the University of Turku in Finland have begun conducting personality research on a semi-captive population of elephants in Myanmar, Burma since 2014. Elephants are long-lived and usually give birth to only one calf at a time, which allows a mother to care for a calf for a long time after birth. Furthermore, they have high cognitive abilities and live in a complex social environment. The traits their lives share with those of humans and some non-human primates make elephants unique subjects for complex personality research.

Burma is home to the second largest total population of Asian elephants remaining worldwide. The university’s research was conducted on a population of over 250 timber elephants who live and work in government-owned timber camps in Myanmar. These elephants work by pulling logs from one place to another but still live comfortably in their natural habitat. Their unique living conditions allowed researchers to study hundreds of individual elephants at once. Furthermore, the elephants work closely alongside a single mahout, a human elephant rider who works with and tends the elephant. Mahouts generally work with their focal elephant for many years, often for their whole life. “Mahouts gain profound knowledge about their elephant’s behavior, and likely nobody else could assess these elephants better than their mahouts,” said Martin Seltmann, a postdoctoral researcher from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku and lead author on the study.

The researchers collected data for the study using questionnaires about the elephants’ personalities. These questionnaires were given to the elephants’ mahouts in order to evaluate aspects of their elephants’ behavior based on 28 different behavioral traits and the frequency of each behavior. The study found that this population of Asian elephants had three distinct personality traits: attentiveness, sociability, and aggressiveness. Attentiveness is related to how the elephant responds to commands from mahouts and how the elephant acts in and perceives its environment in general. Sociability refers to how the elephant seeks close relationships with both other elephants and humans. Aggressiveness is how combatively the elephant acts towards others and to what extent that behavior impacts their social interactions. They found no significant differences in the structures of these three personality factors between male and female elephants.

Of the three personality traits discovered in the study, Seltmann found the attentiveness trait most intriguing. This study was the first to suggest a personality factor like attentiveness in elephants, but Seltmann believes this observed trait may not be unique to them. “It would be exciting to investigate if a similar personality factor would manifest in other working animals, like domestic horses or search dogs,” Seltmann said. He also pointed out the lack of a neuroticism factor in the population, which was surprising to him because of how frequently the factor is observed in other studies conducted on elephants in zoos. Neuroticism is most likely found in the zoo populations because they are living in a fully-confined captive state. In this study, Seltmann attributes the lack of the neuroticism factor to the elephants’ semi-captive natural environment, which allowed the elephants to live in their natural environments under normal living conditions of wild elephants.

As one of the first of its kind, this study sheds more light on how personality develops and helps provide the basis for future research linking personality to reproductive success. “We want to look at the relationship between an elephant’s early environment, its stress physiology, and its personality. We may also investigate potential maternal effects on an elephant’s personality,” Seltmann said. Furthermore,  this research may also help facilitate the protection of the Asian elephant species and improve the subjective well-being of individuals in this population. As the endangered species continues to decline in population, a better understanding of the factors which structure the elephant’s personality can help inform their management and healthcare. Only then, armed with the knowledge that elephants are in fact just like us, can mahouts perfect their methods of working with their animal counterparts—as equals.