For Release: August 18, 2011
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On August 18, PLoS ONE published a significant paper about elephant cognition in which the Smithsonian’s National Zoo’s now 9-year-old elephant, Kandula, showed unparalleled problem-solving skills. Three of the five co-authors of the study, Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant, include National Zoo elephant keeper Marie Galloway; National Zoo curator of elephants, Tony Barthel; and National Zoo associate director for Animal Care Sciences, Don Moore. Video is available through PLoS ONE.
About the study:
The paper’s abstract:
The ‘‘aha’’ moment or the sudden arrival of the solution to a problem is a common human experience. Spontaneous problem solving without evident trial and error behavior in humans and other animals has been referred to as insight. Surprisingly, elephants, thought to be highly intelligent, have failed to exhibit insightful problem solving in previous cognitive studies. We tested whether three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) would use sticks or other objects to obtain food items placed out-of-reach and overhead. Without prior trial and error behavior, a 7-year-old male Asian elephant showed spontaneous problem solving by moving a large plastic cube, on which he then stood, to acquire the food. In further testing he showed behavioral flexibility, using this technique to reach other items and retrieving the cube from various locations to use as a tool to acquire food. In the cube’s absence, he generalized this tool utilization technique to other objects and, when given smaller objects, stacked them in an attempt to reach the food. The elephant’s overall behavior was consistent with the definition of insightful problem solving. Previous failures to demonstrate this ability in elephants may have resulted not from a lack of cognitive ability but from the presentation of tasks requiring trunk-held sticks as potential tools, thereby interfering with the trunk’s use as a sensory organ to locate the targeted food.
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