Why This Elephant in India Is Blowing Smoke

It’s likely the puffing pachyderm is eating ash-covered charcoal as a form of self-medication to flush out toxins

"Smoke-Breathing" Elephant Stumps Scientists

It’s not unheard of for animals to learn to smoke—there’s a chimp at a North Korean zoo famous for lighting up and earlier this month an orangutan in Indonesia was caught expertly smoking a cigarette. But another animal that appears to be smoking is a head scratcher; Jeanna Bryner at LiveScience reports that biologists in India recently recorded an Asian elephant blowing out puffs of what appears to be smoke in the middle of the forest.

The puffing pachyderm was found by Vinay Kumar, Assistant Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India Program while he and his colleagues were out checking camera traps in Nagarahole National Park and Tiger Reserve in the state of Karnataka. In the video, the elephant appears to pick up and stuff chunks of charcoal into her mouth before exhaling a plume of what looks like smoke. “In India, the Forest Department burns fire lines to create fire breaks that can help control forest fires, Kumar tells Bryner. “And this effort leaves behind wood charcoal on the forest floor.”

According to a press statement from the WCS, researchers aren’t sure exactly what the elephant is doing, but it’s probably not just fooling around. Charcoal is known for its ability to bind with toxins and works as a laxative. So eating the charcoal may serve as a sort of wildlife medicine for the elephant. Charcoal is readily available in most places after forest fires or lightning strikes.

“I believe the elephant may have been trying to ingest wood charcoal,” WCS elephant biologist Varun Goswami says in the statement. “She appeared to be picking up pieces from the forest floor, blowing away the ash that came along with it, and consuming the rest.”

Such animal self-medication using natural materials is called zoopharmacognosy. And it's relatively common in the animal world; anyone who has a cat or dog that ate grass till it barfed has witnessed the phenomenon. But there are more sophisticated examples as well.

Red colobus monkeys on the island of Zanzibar, for instance, have been observed eating charcoal to counteract toxic substances in their diets. In another study, reports Joel Shurkin at PNAS, researchers near Salonga National Park in the Congo witnessed bonobos carefully collecting certain sandpapery leaves and carefully placing them on their tongue, balling them up and swallowing them whole. It’s believed they use the scratchy leaves, which are not a normal part of their diet, as a way of scouring parasites from their systems.

Other examples include red and green macaws that eat clay to kill bacteria and aid digestion, spider monkeys that consume leaves that may improve fertility, lemurs that eat leaves that spur milk production and pregnant elephants in Kenya that munch leaves that may speed up delivery.

While it's not clear how much of this behavior is innate and how much is learned, at least one species shows that animals are aware of chemicals in their environment and their potential uses. House finches in Mexico City figured out that lining their nests with nicotine-laced cigarette butts helps keep out mites, lice and other potential parasites.

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