Date of Award

Fall 12-16-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Joshua M. Plotnik

Second Advisor

Melissa H. Schmitt

Academic Program Adviser

Diana Reiss


Elephants have shown remarkable olfactory capabilities. Their sense of smell impacts their foraging choices, behavior, and ultimately, survival. Being able to detect a target odor can allow elephants to locate specific resources, identify threats, and find receptive conspecifics. Previous studies have shown that elephants can consistently detect target odors, but have not identified the limits of this detection. Thus, to investigate the extent of elephants’ odor detection capabilities, we tested Asian elephants in a two-step odor discrimination task. First, we investigated whether elephants could detect odors at varying levels of dilution after a training procedure, and then whether they could still do so when the odors on which they had been trained were masked with a common environmental odor. We found that elephants could reliably detect the target odor in successive dilutions down to 0.01% concentration by volume. The addition of a complex odor background (i.e., a masking odor) had no significant impact on the elephant’s ability to detect the target odor or the dilution limit at which they could do so. This research builds upon our understanding of the elephant’s olfactory sense and contributes to knowledge of sensory systems that are functionally different from our own. By further exploring the elephant’s sensory systems, we can gain a deeper understanding of their perceptual world, their behavior, and how their evolution has shaped their capacity to adapt to their natural environment.

Keywords: Asian elephant, olfaction, sensitivity, discrimination



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