A new study has found that elephants are quite good at recognizing faces, but humans are even better.
The research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, pitted humans against elephants in a facial recognition task. The results showed that humans were about twice as accurate as elephants when it came to identifying individuals from a group.
But the elephants had one big advantage over the humans: they were much better at remembering faces they had seen before.
“Our findings suggest that elephants have a remarkable ability to process faces and that this ability is similar to, or even slightly better than, our own,” says study author Joshua Plotnik, Ph.D., of Mahidol University in Thailand.
“This is an important finding because it challenges the view that humans are the only animals with sophisticated face-processing abilities.”
The study was conducted at Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for rescued elephants in Thailand. The researchers showed the elephants a series of photographs of human and elephant faces, both familiar and unfamiliar.
The elephants were then shown a new set of photographs and asked to choose the one that matched the face they had seen before.
The results showed that the elephants were able to correctly identify familiar faces about 60 percent of the time. That may not sound like a high success rate, but it’s actually quite good when you consider that the elephants were choosing from a pool of more than 100 faces.
What’s more, the elephants were better at recognizing familiar faces than unfamiliar ones. This suggests that they were using something other than just visual cues to identify the faces they had seen before.
“We believe that the elephants may be using contextual cues, such as location or social context, to help them remember faces,” says Plotnik.
“This ability is similar to what humans do when we see a familiar face in a crowd.”
The study also found that elephants are better at recognizing familiar faces than human babies. This suggests that facial recognition is not something that humans learn as they grow up.
Instead, it’s something we’re born with.
“This study provides strong evidence that elephants have a sophisticated ability to process faces,” says Plotnik.
“This ability is likely innate, and it may be related to the elephant’s social life.”
The findings could have important implications for the conservation of elephants. If elephants are able to recognize individual humans, it may be possible to use this ability to help them avoid conflict with people.
“If we can find ways to harness the elephants’ natural ability to process faces, it could be used to help them coexist peacefully with people,” says Plotnik.
“This is an important step in developing non-invasive and non-lethal methods for managing human-elephant conflict.”