Berlin Zoo Elephant Learns to Peel Bananas by Itself and Is Even Picky About Their Ripeness

Person feeding a banana to an elephant

Photo: dani.ronneberg/Depositphotos (Not the actual elephant.)

The cleverness of elephants has captivated scientists and animal lovers alike for decades. They are smart observers with excellent memories, and their intelligence doesn’t stop there. Elephants are also adept learners. This was recently made abundantly clear by a gentle giant named Pang Pha at the Berlin Zoo. The Asian elephant has learned to peel bananas, much to the amazement of the zoo staff.

While it may sound like a cool trick Pang Pha has been trained to do, the elephant is self-taught, as nobody directly showed her how to open a banana. It is thought, however, that the animal picked up the ability after seeing her caretakers peel the fruit. “Pha peels faster than humans by a partially stereotyped sequence of behaviors: she breaks the banana, shakes out and collects the pulp, and discards the peel,” writes a group of scientists who published this curious behavior on Current Biology. “Shaking and peeling are repeated until no or little pulp is left inside the peel and leftovers are checked multiple times with the trunk tip.”

As if that weren't enough, Pang Pha doesn’t settle for just any banana. The brilliant mammal is a picky eater with a high standard for the fruits she’ll consume. “We would offer Pha bananas for weeks without her peeling a single one,” the scientists point out. Thinking at first that she was rejecting some bananas at random, they started to notice a trend: her peeling preference varied strongly with banana ripeness. “Pha never peeled green or green-yellow bananas, peeled some yellow bananas, 82% of yellow-brown bananas, and a majority of brown bananas,” they state.

With that, they learned that Pang Pha can also differentiate the fruits by their color and ripeness. “Like other elephants, Pha consumes green or yellow bananas as a whole. She rejects brown bananas but, unlike other elephants, when on her own she peels yellow-brown bananas,” the scientists report.

Despite how impressive her ability is, Pang Pha is rather shy about it in front of her peers. The scientists observed a social banana feeding, where she was joined by her daughter, Anchali, and another female Asian elephant named Drumbo. There, she ate most of the yellow-brown bananas as a whole and rejected more pieces than she normally would on her own. She also held onto the last banana to peel at a later time.

Though this is an impressive self-taught action, Pang Pha is not the first elephant to peel bananas. The scientists in the paper state they've seen videos of other such creatures with the same trait. However, they establish that the circumstances are what make it extraordinary. “Pha’s peeling behavior might relate to her life history. When she arrived in 1987 in Berlin she was still partially bottle-fed by elephant keepers. Her main caretaker (R.P.) consistently fed her with peeled bananas, and peeled directly in front of her,” note the observers, reinforcing their hypothesis that she acquired this by observing the humans around her.

Curiously, no other elephants seemed to have picked up Pang Pha's technique, not even those closest to her. “The fact that Pang Pha’s daughter Anchali did not acquire banana peeling suggests that this skill is not easily transmitted by learning,” they write. And though she is more comfortable peeling bananas on her own, other elephants have seen her plenty of times.

Thus, Pang Pha seems to be one in a million. Not only she has developed something rare, but she has also inspired new paths of research regarding animal behavior around humans. “We discovered a very unique behavior,” said scientist Michael Brecht. “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.”

Meet Pang Pha, a brilliant Asian elephant at the Berlin Zoo who has learned how to peel bananas on her own.


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Una publicación compartida por Zoo Berlin (@zooberlin)

Not only can she peel bananas, but she is also selective with which ones she will peel and eat, depending on its ripeness.

Pang Pha the elephant's banana peeling preferences shown in graphs and charts by scientists

(click on image to enlarge)

Scientists say, “Pha peels faster than humans by a partially stereotyped sequence of behaviors: she breaks the banana, shakes out and collects the pulp, and discards the peel.”

Close up of a Trunk of an elephant as it takes a banana from a hand of the girl

Photo: coffeemill/Depositphotos (Not the actual elephant.)

Zoo Berlin: Website | Instagram
h/t: [IFLScience]

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Regina Sienra

Regina Sienra is a Staff Writer at My Modern Met. Based in Mexico City, Mexico, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Communications with specialization in Journalism from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She has 10+ years’ experience in Digital Media, writing for outlets in both English and Spanish. Her love for the creative arts—especially music and film—drives her forward every day.
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