Friday fun: hippocampus (or should I say, elephant-campus)

Jul 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I am always in awe of "unlikely animal friends," and there are plenty of these videos on YouTube from which to enjoy. This CBS Evening News Assignment America particularly interested me, featuring the friendship of Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog.

Steve Hartman has reported two follow-ups since this 2009 story. The latest, which I caught back in November, was heartbreaking, but extraordinarily fascinating. Sadly, Bella was killed by what appeared to be a coyote attack on October 26. When the location of the attack was pinpointed, the blood on Tarra's trunk made it evident that the elephant had carried her friend a mile back to the house. Tarra showed all signs of depression—her fellow elephant friends at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN rallied and reached out to her, spending more time with her and offering her their food. Nothing short of amazing, right?

Anybody with a pet wonders whether their animals can feel emotion. Scientific studies have reported signs of joy in rats, empathy in mice, and anger in baboons. We've all heard about pets who stand vigil over sick or dying owners, dogs who adopt extreme levels of responsibility for the blind or disabled, and my friend has a cat who is particularly affectionate when she isn't feeling well, physically or emotionally.

Elephants, in particular, demonstrate unusually high levels of grief in response to tragedy. They have also been shown to suffer psychological flashbacks resembling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and their wide range of human-like behaviors include mimicry, art, play, altruism, use of tools, problem-solving, cooperation, a sense of humor, and possibly language.

Elephants, it turns out, have an unusually large and convoluted hippocampus, a region in the brain particularly involved in emotion. In elephants, the hippocampus comprises 0.7% of the central structure of the brain, compared to just 0.5% in humans and 0.1% in dolphins, another highly intelligent and emotional mammal. Memory is stored in the temporal lobe (structure 1a, left), which is especially large and distinct in the elephant. Their particularly developed spatial memory may account for their tendency toward flashbacks and incredible ability to traverse long distances by memory.

All very fascinating, but in the meantime, makes a sad story for Tarra and her lost friend. It seems that Aristotle was correct in once noting that elephants are "the beast which passeth all others in wit and mind."

Hakeem, A., Hof, P., Sherwood, C., Switzer, R., Rasmussen, L., & Allman, J. (2005). Brain of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana): Neuroanatomy from magnetic resonance images The Anatomical Record Part A: Discoveries in Molecular, Cellular, and Evolutionary Biology, 287A (1), 1117-1127 DOI: 10.1002/ar.a.20255

One response so far

  • Rachel S says:

    I was very interested in this article , as I am an elephant enthusiast. I would like to get involved in elephant rescue, sanctuaries, and rehabilitation. I recently wrote a persuasive essay on elephant rights in which opened the eyes of those who read/heard it and are blind to just how remarkable this animal is. The story about Tarra is very sad, but proves the high intelligence that is very present in elephants. I'm not sure if this article was something you had written for a common love of the amazing creature or not, but what I am sure of is that it makes a difference. Every step we as people take towards the rights (and respect) of elephants is HUGE and very important to not only the elephants themselves, but elephant lovers.
    Anyways, my point in commenting is to say thank you.
    Have a good one,
    Rachel