Conservationists have designated August 12 as World Elephant Day to raise awareness about conserving these majestic animals. Elephants have many engaging features, from their incredibly dexterous trunks to their memory abilities and complex social lives.
But there is much less discussion of their brains, even though it stands to reason that such a large animal has a pretty big brain (about 12 pounds). Indeed, until recently very little was actually known about the elephant brain, in part because obtaining well-preserved tissue suitable for microscopic study is extremely difficult.
That door was opened by the pioneering efforts of neurobiologist Paul Manger at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, who obtained permission in 2009 to extract and preserve the brains of three African elephants that were scheduled to be culled as part of a larger population management strategy. We have thus learned more about the elephant brain in the last 10 years than ever before.
The research shared here was conducted at Colorado College in 2009-2011 in cooperation with Paul Manger, Columbia University anthropologist Chet Sherwood and neuroscientist Patrick Hof of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Our goal was to explore the shapes and size of neurons in the elephant cortex.