A smoking elephant?

Yes, Alice in Wonderland had a smoking caterpillar, but that was fiction. Here’s a smoking elephant that’s for real.

(Well, it’s not really smoking, as that would burn its mouth; it’s apparently ingesting charcoal and ash and then exhaling the ash.)

According to the Guardian, which I don’t find persuasive here, it could be self medication:

Footage of an Asian elephant “smoking” in a forest in southern India has baffled wildlife experts, who say the behaviour has never before been observed.

Vinay Kumar, a scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) India programme, captured the puffing pachyderm while visiting camera traps in the Nagarahole national park in Karnataka state.

The 48-second video shows the elephant picking up something with its trunk and putting it in its mouth, then blowing out a gust of smoke.

Biologists from the WCS said the footage, shot in April 2016 but only recently posted online, was “the first known video documentation of a wild elephant exhibiting such behaviour, and has scientists and experts puzzled”.

He said charcoal had toxin-binding properties that could have medicinal value for the animals. Charcoal is also a laxative and is plentiful in forests after wildfires, lightning strikes or controlled burns.

Though elephants have not previously been observed blowing ash, animal self-medication – zoopharmacognosy – is relatively common, according to the Smithsonian website.

Maybe it just likes the taste! Must there always be an adaptive explanation?

h/t: Matthew

23 Comments

  1. Posted March 27, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Maybe it is a game?

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of a scene in a Woody Allen movie: “Really? This little bag (cocaine) is two thousand dollars? Achoo!”

  2. Ann German
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Maybe it tastes “good” because it makes the elephant feel better?!?

  3. Trevor H
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Slightly off-topic, but I know Prof Ceiling Cat is a fan….

    https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/27/what-if-spaghettis-illegal-philomena-cunk-breaks-down-brexit

  4. BJ
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, this reminds me of a question I thought of earlier today as I admired an adorable kitten on my deck: what could be the evolutionary reason for humans to find certain animals cute and wish to care for them? It seems to me that this disposition would perhaps be detrimental when hunting other mammals, or even raising and then slaughtering them, would be a disadvantage. I can’t think of any reason for this to be an advantageous adaptation.

    • Trevor H
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      It ‘misplaced’ empathy – we care for own kids, and small animals have many of the same characteristics

      It is a good ‘misplacement’ though 😉

    • GBJames
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      The cute response is well known. It exists so that creatures will care for their young.

      • BJ
        Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        But why would it extend to other animals? They’re more than different enough that it seems like it should be at least within the realm of possibility to separate one’s own species from other radically different ones. Plus, we find plenty of mammals far less cute than the ones we do find adorable.

        • GBJames
          Posted March 27, 2018 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

          Because other animals use the same mechanism. Mammals share the same basic strategies. We all inherited this from our shared common ancestors.

          • BJ
            Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

            Sure, I get that. But we have plenty of instincts when it comes to our fellow humans that do now extend to other mammals. Why does this one?

            Further, if this is something that covers all or most mammals, why is this instinct not nearly as strong for many/most/all of the mammal species that are actually closest to us genetically, such as large apes? People do not react to bonobos in the way they react to cats or dogs. If your explanation fit perfectly, this instinct would extend most strongly to those species closest in genetics and aesthetics to us.

            • BJ
              Posted March 28, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

              “do *not* extend to other animals”

              sorry, typo.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      The usual reason given is that we are induced to care for infants by natural selection so other cute things induce that behavior in us. It also works in other mammals cute things like infants.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

        Cell phone posting. Not used to it.

  5. Mark R.
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s gettin’ a buzz on. 😉

  6. grasshopper
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    “Fossil remains of dwarf elephants have been found on the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Malta (at Ghar Dalam), Crete (in Chania at Vamos, Stylos and in a now under water cave on the coast), Sicily, Sardinia, the Cyclades Islands and the Dodecanese Islands”.

    These beasties were only about 1.5-2.3 metres tall.
    I’ll bet smoking stunted their growth.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarf_elephant

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      They’re a classic example of “Island Dwarfism” – when invading an island environment, many large animals become shrunken compared to their mainland relatives, which is attributed to the relatively restricted resources quantities on an island.
      More interestingly – to me – is the proposition that the skulls of these dwarfed elephants, which have a large, central nasal opening, gave rise to the legends of the Cyclops – an island-dwelling race of one-eyed giants of Odysseyian fame.
      Ref “Giants and elephants of Sicily”
      V. AGNESI , C. DI PATTI & B. TRUDEN, From: PICCARDI, L. & MASSE, W. B. (eds) Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273, 263-270.” http://sp.lyellcollection.org/content/273/1

  7. Posted March 27, 2018 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    My money is on medicine.
    http://www.natural-wonder-pets.com/do-wild-animals-heal-themselves.html

  8. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that elephant looks particularly “smoking”. But that may raise a Stormy of derision from the White House Twit-in-Chief.

  9. Jimbo
    Posted March 27, 2018 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    I have a theory. The elephants eat ash because wood ash is almost 25% calcium carbonate and 10% potassium salts which are critically important minerals for healthy bone structure in such a large mammal. In fact, elephants have been known to excavate large caves (e.g. Kitum Cave) over many generations to consume large amounts of salt which one assumes must be scarce in their typical diet.

    Or there’s no good reason at all as Jerry suggests.

  10. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    “Charcoal is also a laxative”

    I thought it was used for the opposite purpose.

  11. johzek
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    This is what one elephant did once. Until several others are observed doing the same thing it is a bit premature to talk about the behavior of elephants.


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