World Elephant Day: 10 Ways Elephants Are Like Us

In honor of World Elephant Day, we take a look at some of the traits these amazing giants have in common with people.

August 12 is World Elephant Day, first established in 2012 to bring attention to the plight of Asian and African elephants, which face habitat loss, threats from poachers, and mistreatment in captivity, among other species-threatening problems.

Loved by people the world over, these intelligent, social creatures share many traits in common with the species that gives them the most trouble. Let's list some of the ways elephants are like us.

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1. Strong Maternal Instincts

Whether human or elephant, mothers love their children. A newborn calf in elephant society is quite a to-do, and females have been observed making loud calls and bellowing as a new calf is being born.

It doesn't get less passionate after birth. The mother will be exceedingly vigilant with her new offspring -- keeping the tiny (by comparison) calf close, using her legs or trunk to nudge the child to its feet, even carrying the calf herself if the terrain doesn't permit the new arrival to make it on its own. The passionate mom will protect her child from predators and even provide shade by standing over it.

Mom will also bathe her child, and she'll be quick to offer protection if the calf makes loud distress noises. Sound familiar?

2. Complex Societies

Elephant societies are complex, the behaviors entrenched generation after generation, the roles of individuals guided by gender.

Interestingly, societies form around females, while the males tend to be solitary wanderers, roaming from group to group in search of different mates. In that way, the males really maximize on the longevity of their bloodline, as they could potentially mate with dozens of females in a given year.

The females, meanwhile, run the show in family groups. The oldest and most dominant female is the family unit matriarch. The rest of the unit is filled out by the matriarch's daughters and their new offspring, as well as several juvenile elephants. Males will typically leave this unit to begin their wandering ways by the time they reach 15 years of age.

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3. Mourning Their Dead

Elephants have displayed distinctive mourning behavior, perhaps suggesting they have an inkling about the concept of death. They have been known to pause over the body of a dead elephant and remain there in silence for long periods. They might also smell the body, touch it or even caress it. Sometimes a bone or tusk will be carried away by the group.

A mother elephant whose newborn has died will sometimes remain with the calf for days. She may also experience a kind of depression afterward, walking slowly and barely able to keep pace with the rest of the herd.

4. Honoring Fallen Friends and Family

Following naturally upon elephants' displays of loss and grief are suggestions that they might even try to "inter," in their own way, their fallen fellow elephants.

Indeed elephants have been observed laying branches and grass on top of carcasses, after standing over them to be sure the immobile animal was in fact dead.

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5. Displaying Empathy

A 2014 study published in the journal Peer J found that Asian elephants were able and willing to comfort a fellow elephant that had shown itself to be in distress. The comforting elephant would use its trunk to caress the troubled elephant, all the while making gentle chirping noises.

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6. Long Memories

It's not a myth: Elephants really do have sharp, long memories. They can remember injuries they have incurred and they can hold grudges against those who have given them trouble. For example, one study found that African elephants reacted with disdain to the sight or even smell of clothing worn by Maasai warriors. The warriors were known, and remembered, by the elephants as a group that could cause them harm, as the warriors have been known to spear elephants in order to show off their masculinity.

There is even anecdotal evidence that elephants can remember trainers who have treated them poorly in the past.

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7. Playful Natures

It's tempting to think of elephants as giant, cheerless plodders lumbering across the landscape. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Elephants make remarkable displays of joy and happiness, especially the young ones. Elephants will splash around in the water just for the fun of it, jostle each other, and even call out to each other from far away, in anticipation of a reunion, when a prodigal elephant is returning to its group.

Elephants may even shed tears of joy, or relief, when their suffering has been eased, as was witnessed in an Indian elephant freed after 50 years of abuse.

8. Language Skills

An Asian elephant named Koshik was able to understand a limited vocabulary of Korean words and also could imitate human speech in order to say the words.

As if that weren't enough, African elephants have been found to be able to differentiate between gender and ethnicity in human voices, according to a study released in 2014. Elephants were played recorded voices from several groups, and among the findings was that the creatures were able to identify voices belonging to threatening groups, moving away from those instinctively.

And in another great feat from our large-eared friends, a 2013 study showed that elephants also understand human pointing, something many great apes -- closer to us genetically -- can't even do.

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9. Dominant "Handed"

Most humans have a dominant hand, and elephants too have a "handedness," of sorts. They prefer to use one tusk over another -- be they right-tusked or left-tusked. They use their dominant tusk for digging up earth and uprooting trees, and they'll only go to the opposite tusk for those tasks if the dominant one is severely injured.

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10. Self Awareness

Here's something not seen in many creatures outside of humans, apes and some dolphins: self awareness. Researchers studying Asian elephants found the animals recognized themselves in mirrors. One elephant even noticed, and pointed at, a mark made on her face that she could only see thanks to the mirror.

To know you're looking at "yourself" in a reflection is a neat trick not many animals can pull off, but elephants can do it with aplomb.