This elephant peels bananas, but only slightly ripe ones

Studying the rare ability may shed light on how the animals learn

Asian elephant grabbing a banana with her trunk

Pang Pha takes a banana from a researcher at the Berlin Zoo. Whether the elephant peels the fruit before eating it depends on its ripeness.

Lena Kaufmann

Do you peel bananas from the top or bottom? One elephant goes with a third option.

When handed a slightly browning banana, Pang Pha, an Asian elephant at Zoo Berlin, will use her trunk to break the fruit, shake the pulp onto the ground, discard the peel and then shove the pulp into her mouth, researchers report in the April 10 Current Biology. The rare behavior, previously recorded in just a few elephants, could help shed light on how the animals learn complex movements.

When a zookeeper first told neuroscientist Lena Kaufmann of Humboldt University of Berlin that one of the elephants peeled bananas, she decided to test it out for herself. For weeks, Kaufmann and colleagues couldn’t get Pang Pha to replicate the behavior. That’s because the way the elephant eats bananas seems to depend on ripeness.

Pang Pha ate green and yellow bananas whole — peel and all. It was only when Kaufmann offered the gentle giant a brown-spotted banana that she revealed her peeling prowess. But the fruit can’t be too brown, Kaufmann’s team found. Pang Pha rejected completely brown bananas. Initially she would place them gently on the ground in protest. Now she throws them aside.

Pang Pha, an Asian elephant at Zoo Berlin, uses her trunk to peel a slightly brown banana before eating it. She breaks the fruit, shakes the pulp onto the ground, discards the peel and then shoves the pulp into her mouth. Researchers think Pang Pha picked up the rare skill by observing her zookeepers.

In the company of other elephants, Pang Pha surprisingly ate most yellow-brown bananas whole. She typically saved her peeling trick for the last banana during a social feeding session.

Pang Pha may have developed the peeling ability by observing her human caretakers, the researchers suspect. Elephants learning behaviors from people is extremely rare, the team says, especially a behavior this complex. None of the other elephants at the zoo — including Pang Pha’s daughter — have been observed peeling bananas. That suggests the skill isn’t easily learned from elephant to elephant.

The new study shows the value of studying individual animals, Kaufmann says. “There’s such a rich landscape of behaviors that we lose if we only look at what all elephants have in common,” she says. “If you look at each individual elephant, you can see that they’re able to do really amazing things.”

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