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African elephants can detect water from natural and artificial sources via olfactory cues


Water is vital for mammals. Yet, as ephemeral sources can be difficult to find, it raises the question, how do mammals locate water? Elephants (Loxodonta africana) are water-dependent herbivores that possess exceptional olfactory capabilities, and it has been suggested that they may locate water via smell. However, there is no evidence to support this claim. To explore this, we performed two olfactory choice experiments with semi-tame elephants. In the first, we tested whether elephants could locate water using olfactory cues alone. For this, we used water from two natural dams and a drinking trough utilised by the elephants. Distilled water acted as a control. In the second, we explored whether elephants could detect three key volatile organic compounds (VOCs) commonly associated with water (geosmin, 2-methylisoborneol, and dimethyl sulphide). We found that the elephants could locate water olfactorily, but not the distilled water. Moreover, they were also able to detect the three VOCs associated with water. However, these VOCs were not in the odour profiles of the water sources in our experiments. This suggests that the elephants were either able to detect the unique odour profiles of the different water sources or used other VOCs that they associate with water. Ultimately, our findings indicate that elephants can locate water olfactorily at small spatial scales, but the extent to which they, and other mammals, can detect water over larger scales (e.g. km) remains unclear.

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We thank S. Hensman and the rest of the team at Adventures with Elephants for allowing us to run the experiments. T. Bester and M. Schmitt assisted with data collection, and J. Joubert helped with the analysis of VOCs. J. Katz and three anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments on the manuscript.


The work was supported by the University of Pretoria to AMS and the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche [ANR-16-CE02-0001-01] to SCJ.

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M.W., S. C-J and A.M.S conceived the ideas, designed the methodology, and led the writing of the manuscript. M.W. and A.M.S. collected and analysed the data. A.H. conducted and interpreted the olfactory analysis. All authors contributed critically to the drafts.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrian M. Shrader.

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The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.

Ethical approval

All animal experiments were approved by the University of Pretoria’s Animal Ethics Committee (reference number NAS075/2019) in compliance with South African laws and regulations.

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Wood, M., Chamaillé-Jammes, S., Hammerbacher, A. et al. African elephants can detect water from natural and artificial sources via olfactory cues. Anim Cogn 25, 53–61 (2022).

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  • 2-Methylisoborneol
  • Dimethyl sulphide
  • Geosmin
  • Smell of water
  • Surface water
  • Volatile organic compounds