Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to sub-navigation

Professor Bob Jacobs on National Geographic Special

By Eileen Kitrick ’17

Until recently, virtually nothing was known of the complexity and cellular beauty of African elephant brains. Until CC Neuroscience Professor Bob Jacobs, that is. His research, beginning in 2010, has focused on the structure of the neurons in elephant cerebral cortex. The structure, or morphology, of these neurons is strikingly different from what has been observed in other mammals.

Nat Geo Wild’s special “Mind of a Giant,” airing at 7 p.m., Sunday, June 19 (and again at 10 p.m.), features Jacobs and the newest findings on African elephant capabilities that have allowed this threatened species to adapt to habitat loss. With Jacobs’ research and that of others featured in the National Geographic program, we now know that elephants are much more intelligent and phenomenal social creatures than had been previously recognized. In the Nat Geo program, experts shed light on the African elephant’s mental abilities, which includes theory of mind, self-awareness, advanced communication abilities, and planning skills.

“There is more than one way to wire an intelligent brain,” says Jacobs.

The elephant brain was the first non-human animal brain that Jacobs extensively examined in his laboratory.  Jacobs, who developed the neuroscience major in Colorado College’s Psychology Department in 1996, has worked with several students for his research on elephant brains, some of whom are co-authors on the first paper published in 2011. The organizational differences in African elephant brains are indicative of the elephant’s complex cognitive and social abilities, leading researchers to believe that elephants may even be able to understand what other animals are thinking.  Since the initial publication, Jacobs has conducted neuromorphological research on other large mammal species, including the giraffe, humpback whale, Siberian tiger, and manatee. His more recent research, published in 2015, comparing newborn elephant brains to that of adult elephant brains and other species’ newborns, reinforces the neuronal distinction in elephants and the variations that exist across species.

“Mind of a Giant” will be available across Roku, Apple TV, Xbox, and other streaming platforms through July 24.