Jumbo: The Life Of An Elephant Superstar

Forgotten bones of Jumbo the elephant help scientists crack unsolved mysteries surrounding the world’s first animal superstar.
Available on CBC Gem

Jumbo: The Life Of An Elephant Superstar

Nature of Things

Deep inside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City lies the skeleton of Jumbo, a creature so large his name became part of the English language, synonymous with being huge. But Jumbo was far more than the biggest act in the Barnum and Bailey Circus; he was also the world’s first animal superstar whose sudden death left a raft of mysteries that remain unsolved to this day:

Was he really the biggest elephant in the world?  How did he die? And was he suffering from tuberculosis?

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umbo's Stroll Over The Brooklyn Bridge

Untouched for decades, Jumbo’s bones are locked away for safekeeping. But for the first time in the history of the American Museum of Natural History, special access is being granted to an international team of scientists who will use the latest DNA, isotope and forensic analysis to answer the questions surrounding Jumbo.

The team is led by Richard Thomas, a paleopathologist from the University of Leicester. Working with him is John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College, London, and Holly Miller an isotope expert from the University of Nottingham. Focusing on DNA analysis is Emil Karpinski from Hendrik Poinar’s Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University in Hamilton.

David Suzuki examines Jumbo's bones at the American Museum of National History.

But David Suzuki and this team of experts will do far more than unlock Jumbo’s secrets.  Through his forgotten skeleton, they will gradually build a picture of this giant over the course of his life revealing how a lack of knowledge about elephants affected Jumbo. 

MORE: Listen to an interview with director Christine Nielson on The Current.

Travelling to Africa, we will examine the latest science that reveals that elephants can suffer from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We will uncover the importance of the relationship between mothers and their babies and highlight the extraordinary work of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya who rescue orphaned elephants and return them to the wild. 

FROM THE FILM: After suffering injuries, Jumbo doesn't die alone.

We now know that elephants are highly intelligent animals and can only survive in complex social groups.  These realizations have resulted in some dramatic changes in the ways elephants are cared for and protected.

Jumbo lived under conditions that are unacceptable today.  But his giant presence made people think about elephants and sparked the first glimmers of interest in elephant behaviour.  A century and a half later, wild elephants will hopefully benefit from our greater understanding of these amazing animals.