Pang Pha the elephant learned to peel bananas by mimicking humans

Who needs an opposable thumb, anyway?
A juvenile elephant named Ko Raya (left) with Pang Pha (right) at the Berlin Zoo. Scientists believe that Pang Pha taught herself how to peel bananas.
A juvenile elephant named Ko Raya (left) with Pang Pha (right) at the Berlin Zoo. Scientists believe that Pang Pha taught herself how to peel bananas. Günter Peters/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Unlike most primates, elephants will happily munch on a banana without removing its peel. However, one special female elephant at the Berlin Zoo named Pang Pha has taught herself how to peel a banana, according to a new study published April 10 in the journal Current Biology. Pang Pha reserves the task for bananas that are yellow-brown in color and first breaks the fruit before shaking it out and then collecting the pulp. The thick peel is left behind, possibly for for someone else to slip on.  

The authors of the study believe that she likely learned this peeling behavior by watching her caretakers feed bananas to her, and the findings show how elephants in general have some special manipulative and cognitive abilities.

[Related: Scientists may have figured out why elephants exhibit complex emotions.]

“We discovered a very unique behavior,” co-author and Humboldt University of Berlin neuroscientist Michael Brecht said in a statement. “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.”

Pha eats green or yellow bananas whole, completely rejects the brown ones and peels the brown spotted bananas that are typically perfect for baking banana bread before eating them. The team first noticed this after Pha’s caretakers mentioned this unusual banana peeling talent, but when they brought her nice green and yellow bananas, she didn’t peel them 

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

Additionally, Pha will change her behavior when yellow-brown bananas are offered to a group of elephants, and she will eat many whole bananas first and save the last one to peel later. Anecdotal reports and online videos have shown other elephants peeling bananas, but more studies and observations are needed to determine how common a phenomenon it really is. None of the other Berlin Zoo elephants engaged in peeling, according to the study

[Related: Ivory poaching has triggered a surge in elephants born without tusks.]

Earlier studies show that some African elephants can interpret human pointing gestures and even classify people into different ethnic groups. The team on this study believe that human-derived manipulation behaviors like peeling a banana appear to be unique. “Elephants have truly remarkable trunk skills and that their behavior is shaped by experience,” said Brecht.
The team found it surprising that Pha alone picked up on the behavior and are curious if habits like this are passed down in elephant families. They are now looking into other sophisticated trunk behaviors like tool use.