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A Bright Future “Insight” For Elephant Cognition Research

August 18, 2011

Some say that an elephant never forgets, but can they apply what they know? A new study, recently published on August 18, 2011,  in the scientific journal PLoS ONE, shows that they can.

Kandula, the problem-solving pachyderm, has made quite the impression on researchers lately. His ability to understand relationships and solve problems based on that knowledge, a trait known as “insight,” is so impressive that  researchers have been forced to rethink common assumptions regarding elephant intelligence altogether. Elephants have always been considered quite smart, but they’ve never before shown this ability to researchers in a quantifiable way.

The study looked at the three elephants who live at the National Zoological Park, and how they solved problems. Kandula is the youngest of the three; at the time of the study two years ago, he was a mere seven years old. The others were his mother Shanthi and Ambika, who were significantly older at 33 and 61 years of age ,respectively. When the researchers presented the three elephants with food suspended in the air out of their reach, Kandula was the only one who used a tool (a plastic cube as a step-stool) to reach it. None of the elephants had ever been trained to do something like this.

“The amazing thing is that Kandula had a goal, which was the food suspended out of reach. He was very motivated to reach that goal, and apparently used his imagination to visualize how to do so by moving away from it to find a stool-like object that would help him reach the ultimate goal. The only other species that have demonstrated this ability in an experimental setting are humans, chimps and crows. This shows that elephants are like us in their level of intelligence, and deserve to be conserved for future generations” says the Zoo’s associate director of animal care science Don Moore, who is also a member of the research team. The rest of the team included Tony Barthel and Marie Galloway, both also from NZP, and City University of New York’s Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss who designed the methods and statistical analysis.

When the researchers took away Kandula’s handy plastic cube, but left the food dangling tantalizingly out of reach, Kandula stood on a tire instead. His ability to recognize that he needed an object, any object, as a step-stool, showed that he could recognize objects’ potential use, conceptualize how and where to place it, and then do so effectively to reach the food. When the researchers tried to stump him by giving him only a bunch of smaller blocks, he stacked them together and stood on them again as well, triumphantly reaching his treat.

The elephants had originally been given wooden sticks to use to reach the food, but when none of them utilized the tools, the team tried this new approach. Moore explained that the original experiment most likely didn’t work well because the sticks kept the elephants from using their trunks properly. An elephant’s trunk is a primary sensory organ—they learn about their world by smelling and touching it. Because an elephant depends so heavily on his trunk, he can’t simultaneously grasp a stick to retrieve food and smell the food,. let alone judge where it is to the degree that he could use the stick to read the food. Moore also believes that the older elephants who did not use the tools are “more set in their ways” and that the younger elephant was “a little more curious [with] more energy.”