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Major Elephant Cognition Study Comes Out

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:

  • Although previous studies have indicated advanced cognition in elephants, elephants have been reported to perform poorly in spontaneous or insightful problem-solving tasks, while various other species have demonstrated insightful problem-solving skills. So the paper’s researchers set out to investigate elephants’ capacity for insightful problem solving.
  • The National Zoo’s three elephants, Kandula, 36-year-old Shanthi and 63-year-old Ambika, were the subjects of the study.
  • The first part of the study aimed to see if elephants would use bamboo sticks as tools to obtain fruit placed out of reach on the opposite side of the bars of their old indoor enclosure. When they failed to do so, the researchers conducted a second series of experiments. The scientists strung fruit on a bamboo branch between the roof of the elephant house and a tree in the elephants’ yard. They then gave the elephants sticks and a large moveable object that could potentially be moved and used as a tool on which to stand to reach the baited branch.
  • Kandula, who had no previous training in pushing large objects, or any training in pushing large objects to stand on them, moved the cube during the course of the study and used it as a platform to attain otherwise unreachable food. He also showed the ability to generalize his tool use to a different object.
  • The study results provide experimental evidence that an elephant is capable of insightful problem solving through tool use. When given the proper circumstances, elephants, like humans and several other species, can demonstrate “aha” moments.
  • The paper’s primary author is Preston Foerder, Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Program, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. The paper’s senior author is Dr. Diana Reiss, professor, Biopsychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Program, The Graduate Center; Department of Psychology, Hunter College, The City University of New York; Smithsonian research associate.

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.