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Most elephants eat bananas with the peel on, but this elephant has developed her own peeling technique

Pang Pha, an Asian elephant who lives at the Berlin Zoo, is pictured in this screenshot of a video showcasing her banana-peeling abilities. (Berlin Zoo / Current Biology, Kaufmann et al.) Pang Pha, an Asian elephant who lives at the Berlin Zoo, is pictured in this screenshot of a video showcasing her banana-peeling abilities. (Berlin Zoo / Current Biology, Kaufmann et al.)

Normally, elephants eat bananas whole, skin and all. But one elephant at the Berlin Zoo likes to peel some of her bananas first — a skill researchers believe she learned from watching humans.

It’s a unique behaviour that shines a light on the broader cognitive abilities of elephants, researchers say, showing they may be capable of observing, understanding and learning even more than currently known.

“What makes Pang Pha's banana peeling so unique is a combination of factors—skillfulness, speed, individuality, and the putatively human origin—rather than a single behavioral element,” Michael Brecht of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin’s Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience and one of the study authors, said in a press release.

Pang Pha is an Asian elephant who lives in the Berlin Zoo, and while she is happy to eat green or bright yellow bananas whole, peel and all, the way that elephants normally do in the wild, she has a different process when it comes to riper bananas.

Zookeepers realized that Pang Pha had developed her own technique to peel bananas, but only the yellow-brown ones, the kind that are spotted with brown and starting to become a little more mushy than firm.

In a video of Pang Pha’s peeling technique, she grabs a ripe banana with her trunk and flicks it to the ground several times to cause the peel to fall off in strips. If the peel is resisting the flick technique, she pinches the banana to get the remainder of the mushed-up banana pulp to separate from the peel before she eats it.

The peel itself is then left discarded on the ground.

It’s a remarkably speedy peeling process. Researchers demonstrated that Pang Pha can demolish a banana and consume it, sans peel, significantly faster than the average human.

When they tested to see if she would repeat this behaviour with bananas at different levels of ripeness, a clear pattern emerged: brown bananas were rejected outright, and she still ate green and yellow bananas whole.

“It was only when we understood that she peels only yellow-brown bananas that our project took off,” Brecht said.

When Pang Pha was offered yellow-brown bananas while in a group of other elephants, as opposed to one-on-one, she prioritized speed over peeling. Instead of wasting time peeling each of the yellow-brown bananas, she ate as many as possible very quickly, and then saved the very last banana to peel. When on her own, she peeled most of the yellow-brown bananas given to her.

Bananas are more of a treat for elephants, as opposed to a staple in their diet.

The behaviour is described in a study published Monday in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology.

The idea of removing the banana from its peel to eat it is something that is rare in elephants, researchers believe.

Although there are a few videos online of a handful of elephants engaging in similar behaviour, the study notes, none of the other elephants at the Berlin Zoo engage in this behaviour, and no elephants at another zoo in Vienna were observed to peel bananas.

So why does Pang Pha peel her bananas? It could have something to do with how she was raised by human caretakers.

“When she arrived in Berlin in 1987 as a present of the Royal Family of Thailand, she was still bottle-fed by the elephant keepers,” Lena Kaufman, a phD student at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and lead author of the study, said in the video. “They also started feeding her peeled bananas, and we suggest that this is when she developed a preference for them and was also able to observe the peeling performed by humans.”

If elephants can learn just from observing humans and adapt those observations into their own skill-set — by using a trunk instead of hands to peel a banana — with no prompting at all, it suggests there could be more skills elephants are capable of that we just don’t know yet.

Researchers are hoping to study how elephants might use their trunks to utilize tools as well. Top Stories


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