African elephants are known for their expressive facial features and dexterous trunks that can grasp even small objects with their pincer-like grip.
Now scientists have discovered the secret of their skill.
The species has the largest number of facial neurons of any land mammal, allowing them to skillfully shake their ears and perform complex maneuvers with their proboscis.
Facial neurons create a pathway from the brain to the muscles and, in humans, enable expressions such as smiling, frowning or raising the eyebrows. The more there are, the more control an animal has over its facial musculature.
Yet humans only have about 9,000 facial neurons compared to African elephants which have about 63,000.
Experts believe these tens of thousands of extra facial brain cells are responsible for the extreme feats of trunk, ear and lip dexterity in African elephants. Animals are able to pull out a single blade of grass.
Researchers even think they’ve found the part of the brain responsible for their deft pinching motion that allows elephants to pick up objects – a cluster of very large brain cells that sit at one end of a cluster of neurons controlling trunk muscles. .
High-density cellular regions in the brain
Professor Michael Brecht, from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Humboldt University and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, said: “We see high-density cellular regions in the brain African elephants, which seem to represent their “trunk fingers”. ‘.
“In African elephants, these trunk fingers are very adept because they pinch objects with them.
“We think elephants have such giant neurons because these cells have to stretch very long cables to reach the end of the trunk.”
The discovery was made by comparing the brains of eight African and Asian elephants from German zoos.
The project lasted more than a decade because the team had to wait for the animals to die before they could study brain anatomy.
The researchers found that Asian elephants had far fewer facial neurons than their African counterparts – around 54,000 – which seemed to be linked to less control of their proboscis and ears.
Asian elephants have smaller ears and lack finger-like tips at the end of their trunks, which means they have to wrap their entire trunk around an object to pick it up.
They believe the extra neurons in African elephants show that their brains and trunks evolved together, allowing for greater dexterity.
Elephant trunks are also very sensitive to smells and can sense vibrations while having the strength to knock down trees.
The team found that dolphins are the only mammals that have more facial neurons, although researchers aren’t sure if they’re necessary.
Professor Brecht added: “I wonder if this large number of neurons in the facial nucleus are involved in controlling vocalization (which is very complex in dolphins).
“I don’t think they use those neurons for facial gestures, which apparently isn’t that complex in dolphins.”
The research has been published in the journal Science Advances.