Pang Pha eats green bananas whole and peels the yellow ones. But don’t dare bring her a brown one
Pang Pha is very particular about her bananas.
Like most of us, the Asian elephant at the Berlin Zoo prefers her bananas to be the perfect level of bright yellow ripeness. And she also likes them peeled.
In fact, she peels them herself, using her trunk.
"It's a rare, very specific behaviour," Lena Kaufmann, a biology PhD candidate at Humboldt University in Berlin, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "In the zoo in Berlin, no other elephants do it."
Kaufmann is the first author on a paper about Pang Pha's banana-peeling prowess and preferences, which was published this week in the journal Current Biology.
WATCH | Pang Pha peels some bananas, rejects others:
Kaufmann was studying other aspects of elephant behaviour when the zookeepers told her about Pang Pha's fruit handling ways.
Curious, she started bringing bananas to the elephant to see if she would peel them.
"I would give them to her, and she would just eat it whole," she said. "And I started doubting it, to be honest. Like, I wasn't sure about what the elephant keepers were talking about."
But about two weeks in, she realized Pang Pha wasn't the problem; the bananas were. They weren't yet ripe. And hard, green bananas are more difficult to peel.
"At some point I did bring a riper banana, and then I saw this peeling," Kaufmann said.
Brown bananas? No thank you
Kaufmann decided to study the behaviour further. Pang Pha's speed and technique, she said, are quite impressive from a motor skills perspective.
First, she breaks the banana with her trunk, and then swings it around before slamming it on the ground.
"My friend used this reference to Harry Potter, actually, that I found quite funny. She will 'swish and flick' the banana when she's shaking it to the ground," Kaufmann said. "And then … very like delicately, with the finger on her trunk tip, she will pick the peel and shake out the pulp."
On average, it takes 22 seconds for Pang Pha to peel and eat a banana — faster, Kaufmann says, than a human.
While Pang Pha will peel a yellow banana and gobble a green whole, she's got no interest in anything overly ripe. Hand her a black or brown banana, "and she just politely drops it to the floor," Kaufmann said.
And it's best not to push the issue.
"At some point, I gave her two in a row and the first one she just dropped. And the second one she really actually threw after me," Kaufmann said. "She has very specific tastes in bananas."
She'll also skip peeling yellow bananas when she's being fed in a group.
"She adapts her behaviour," Kaufmann said. "She takes into account the fact that there's others that might steal away the bananas and that she might get less bananas if she peels each one.
She will just eat as many bananas as possible, and then keep the last one and peel that one to perform her favourite behaviour."
A real self-starter
Pang Pha is not the world's only banana-peeling elephant. A quick YouTube search will show others performing the trick — though Kauffman says their techniques differ, and it's possible they were trained.
Meanwhile, nobody trained Pang Pha to peel a banana, though it's possible she picked up the preference from her former caretaker.
"She came there when she was only half a year old, and she was the favourite of the main keeper back then. So she was bottle raised, and he was the one who peeled bananas for her as well," Kauffman said.
"We cannot tell for sure that she's imitating human peeling. But … the way I would phrase it is that she definitely developed a liking for peeled bananas because of humans."
Ecologist Chase LaDue — who studies elephant behaviour, but was not involved in this research — says Pang Pha's peeling is impressive, though not entirely surprising.
"I have witnessed elephants manipulate their food in ways that seem to indicate individual preferences, including peeling bananas," LaDue, a postdoctoral fellow in animal behaviour at Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, said in an email.
"However, the authors of this study have provided us with better context of how these kinds of behaviours may be manifested."
The study, he says, is limited for only observing one elephant's behaviour, making it hard to draw any larger conclusions from the findings.
That said, he welcomes any work that sheds light on "the complexity and flexibility of elephant behaviour."
"Asian elephants like Pha are endangered across their range, threatened by habitat loss and increasing levels of conflict with humans," LaDue said.
"While conservation managers and government officials may not be concerned about whether an elephant will peel a banana, any conservation strategies that we implement to help elephants need to take into account their ability to adjust their behaviour in changing landscapes in novel and sometimes unpredictable ways."
A previous version of this story said Pang Pha takes, on average, 22 seconds to peel a banana. In fact, she takes 22 seconds to peel and eat a banana.Apr 13, 2023 5:45 PM ET
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