Like humans, elephants love to munch on bananas. But unlike us, most elephants simply gobble them up whole—peel and all.
Not Pang Pha—the 36-year-old Asian elephant who lives at the Berlin Zoo taught herself to peel bananas with her trunk.
She doesn’t do this all the time, though; Pang Pha is a very discerning peeler. When handed a green or totally yellow banana, she’ll leave the peel on and eat the entire fruit in one go. On the other hand, she’ll flat-out refuse to eat a brown banana. But when given an overripe banana that’s yellow with some brown spots, she’ll swiftly break the fruit in two and shake the soft interior flesh out of the peel.
Pang Pha appears to be a bit secretive about her preferences: When presented with spotted bananas in front of other elephants, she will eat many of them whole but save the last one to peel later.
The elephant’s unique food-prep habit is the subject of a new paper published Monday in the journal Current Biology. Her peeling prowess is yet another reminder of just how intelligent and resourceful pachyderms can be. These giant, social creatures have many skills, including problem-solving, body awareness and even, some say, emotional intelligence.
Pang Pha’s ability to quickly and accurately remove the peel from banana flesh is “another example of how dexterous the elephant’s trunk is,” Joshua Plotnik, a comparative psychologist at Hunter College who was not involved in the study, tells the New York Times’ Emily Anthes in an email.
“It’s a wonderful ‘built-in’ tool that the elephant uses for a variety of purposes,” he says to the publication.
When caretakers at the zoo first noticed Pang Pha’s behavior, they contacted experts at Berlin’s Humboldt University, thinking the pachyderm’s unusual skill might be of scientific interest. But when the researchers began observing Pang Pha, they were initially stymied. They gave the elephant banana after banana, only to watch her gulp them down whole.
Eventually, the scientists realized their problem—they had always been bringing her perfectly ripe fruit. They caught on to Pang Pha’s very specific peeling preferences and realized their study might be even more complex than they’d previously thought. The team theorized that Pang Pha might only peel spotted bananas because their flesh slides out more easily compared to underripe or perfectly ripe fruits. Or, perhaps she just has a discriminating palate and doesn’t like the taste of the spotted peel.
Researchers were also intrigued that Pang Pha appeared to change her behavior around other elephants, possibly because she felt she needed to eat the bananas quickly—with no time to remove the peel—to keep them from getting snapped up by her perceived competition. Perhaps she doesn’t want to miss out on the bananas, which are a sugary treat for elephants rather than a big part of their normal diet, as Kaufmann writes on Twitter.
Meanwhile, no other elephants at the zoo had adopted Pang Pha’s technique, despite watching her peel bananas repeatedly—not even her daughter, Anchali, who often gets to eat the fruits peeled by her mother.
we had a great morning at the zoo with some celebratory banana peeling by Pang Pha: pic.twitter.com/Vhorucu5OF— Lena Kaufmann (@lena_v_kaufmann) April 11, 2023
Researchers aren’t completely sure how Pang Pha herself learned the trick, though they suspect she picked it up during childhood. A dedicated caretaker hand-raised Pang Pha at the zoo and often peeled bananas right in front of her before handing them over.
Though the caretaker didn’t specifically teach Pang Pha how to de-skin bananas, the elephant may have “acquired peeling through observational learning from humans,” the researchers write in the paper.
“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,” he says in the statement.