April 7, 2023

Do Elephants Brush Their Teeth?

It was a beautiful evening at the Bundala National Park, and the sun was beginning to set. A few guests from Wild Coast Tented Lodge were midway through a guided safari with ranger Thilanka, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the incredible wildlife that called this place home.

As they drove through the park, they came across the majestic tusker “Kashyapa” grazing on some tall grass. Thilanka pointed out the tusker to the guests, sharing with them facts on the majestic creature and its behaviour.

Tusker “Kashyapa“ walked toward a bush and suddenly, he broke off a branch and picked up a stick with his trunk. The guests were amazed as they watched the elephant use the stick to clean its teeth, just like a person would use a toothbrush. The elephant held the stick in its trunk and carefully scraped away any debris, moving it around his mouth.

Thilanka explained to the guests that elephants are incredibly intelligent and have been known to use tools for various purposes. He also told them that this behaviour was not common and that it had never been observed in the park.

The guests were thrilled to have witnessed this incredible behaviour and took a video of the tusker using sticks to clean his teeth. As they continued their safari tour, they were filled with a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty and intelligence of the elephant they had seen.

The video  is the first documented evidence which shows how wild elephants use tools to clean their teeth. Elephants are known for their high level of intelligence and ability to use tools. Elephants have a complex social structure and exhibit many behaviours that suggest a high level of cognitive ability such as problem-solving, self-awareness, empathy and communication.

Elephants have been observed to use tools in the wild such as breaking branches to use as fly swatters, using sticks to scratch themselves, and using rocks to dig for water. These tool-use behaviours demonstrate the elephants’ ability to use objects in their environment to achieve a specific goal, which is a sign of intelligence. Previously there was no evidence to suggest that elephants clean their teeth using such tools in the wild.

In captivity, elephants may be trained to allow their caretakers to clean their teeth using specialised tools, but this is not a natural behaviour. In the wild, elephants maintain their teeth through their diet, which consists mainly of coarse plant material that helps wear down their teeth and keep them clean.

Elephants have six sets of molars throughout their lifetime, which are replaced as they wear down. As the old molars wear out, new ones grow to take their place. This process can continue throughout an elephant’s life, with some elephants growing as many as 24 molar teeth in their lifetime.

To make this sighting more interesting Thilanka have found out that the stick which was used to clean the teeth is from the plant “Salvadora persica”, commonly known as the “toothbrush tree” or “miswak.” It is a plant that has been traditionally used for oral hygiene in some cultures. Users chew on the end of the twigs until it frays and use it to clean their teeth.

Studies have shown that the use of Salvadora persica twigs can help improve oral hygiene by reducing plaque, gingivitis, and bacteria in the mouth. The twigs contain natural antibacterial compounds that can help kill harmful bacteria in the mouth, and the fibrous texture of the twig can help remove food particles and plaque from teeth.

While modern toothbrushes and dental care products have largely replaced traditional practices like using Salvadora persica twigs, the plant remains an important part of traditional medicine and cultural practices in some regions even to date.

In addition to tool use, elephants also have remarkable memories, a strong sense of self-awareness, and exhibit complex social behaviours such as mourning their dead. They have also been observed exhibiting behaviours that suggest a level of empathy, such as comforting distressed individuals and exhibiting a sense of fairness.

An incredible sighting. An unforgettable experience. Are you ready to unveil the secrets of the wild with our dedicated rangers at Wild Coast?


Written by Thilanka Bodhikotuwa

Video Credit – Booker James & Tracy Shield