In the Disney movie, Dumbo the flying elephant is a particularly shy, mischievous animal. In real life, elephants can’t flap their ears to fly—but, like Dumbo, they they do have distinct and complex personalities.
A paper published in Royal Society Open Science earlier this month shows that elephant personality can be described according to three distinct traits: attentiveness, sociability, and aggressiveness.
Between 2014 and 2017, researchers from the University of Turku in Finland studied 257 semi-captive elephants who work logging timber in Myanmar (meaning their study was focused only on Asian, rather than African, elephants.) They asked the mahout, or elephant rider, of each elephant to fill out a survey assessing their elephants’ behavior on 28 metrics. These included traits like affection (shown by an elephant rubbing its forehead or body against another elephant), confidence (for example, making decisions without hesitation), inventiveness, (e.g. an elephant that creates new tools), mischievousness (such as swinging a trunk to spray mucus), and slowness (moving in a relaxed, deliberate manner.) Each elephant was rated on a four-point scale of how often they displayed such behavior, from “very rarely,” to “most of the time.”
“We met elephants that were clearly more curious and braver than others. For example, they always tried to steal the watermelons that were meant as rewards,” said Martin Seltmann, lead author of the paper, in a statement.
Within these 28 ratings, the researchers identified 15 behaviors that could be grouped into three traits and correlated with each other. Each of these three broader traits was named by one of its indicative behaviors. “Attentiveness” was defined according to attentive, obedient, slow, vigilant, confident, and active behavior—Seltman describes it as “how an elephant acts in and perceives its environment. “Aggressiveness” describes aggressive, dominant, and moody behavior. And “sociability” is made up of mischievousness, social behavior towards elephants of the same sex, playfulness, friendliness towards elephants of the same sex and people, popularity, and affectionate behavior. “Sociability describes how an elephant seeks closeness to other elephants and humans, and how popular they are as social partners,” said Seltmann.
The researchers expected to find personality differences between male and female Asian elephants, as they have very different social tendencies. “Female Asian elephants live in small family units with strong bonds between the group members and group cohesion is of high importance, while little is known about the social life of male Asian elephants,” write the authors in their paper. “Close relationships with other individuals may therefore be less important for males than for females.” According to their research, though, males have just as sociable personalities as females.
Elephants are not the only animals with distinct personalities. Crayfish can be anxious, trout can be shy, and some baboons are more friendly than others. Humans do have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals and read emotions into individual actions but studies into patterns of animal behavior show that it’s not just our imagination: Many animals really do have distinct personalities.