Elephants are no Dumbos after all

By AAP with AG Staff 1 December 2013
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Elephants are known for their excellent memories, but new research shows they’re quick learners too.

ELEPHANTS HAVE LONG BEEN admiredfor their great memories, but it turns out that they are just as adept at learning new skills.

British researchers have found that Asian elephants cooperate to solve problems and have complex social structures.

“They help others in distress,” says lead researcher JoshuaPlotnik, of Cambridge University in England. “They seem in some ways emotionally attached to each other, so you would expect there would be some level of cooperation…[However] I was surprised how quickly they learned.”

The elephants caught on as quickly as chimpanzees, elevating themselves to such heady company as great apes, dolphins and crows, he says.

Elephants are smart alecs

According to the report published on Monday, the tests, conducted in Thailand, involved food rewards being placed on a platform on the ground connected to a rope. The elephants were stationed behind a fence – to get the food, they had to pull the two ends of the rope at the same time to drag the platform under the fence. If they pulled only one end and all they got was the rope.

Six pairs of elephants were tested 40 times over two days and every pair figured it out, succeeding on at least eight of the last 10 trials. The scientists then tried releasing the elephants into the test area separately, up to 45 seconds apart. The elephants quickly learned to wait for their partners, with a success rate of between 88 and 97 per cent for various pairs on the second day.

One young elephant had what the researchers termed an “unconventional” solution to the problem. As Joshua and co-authors explained, the elephant firmly put one foot on the end of her rope, “forcing her partner to do all the work to retrieve the table”.

Elephants work as one

In another experiment, the researchers left only one end of the rope within reach of the elephants, with the other end coiled on the table. The elephants didn’t bother to pull the rope, seeming to recognise that it wouldn’t work if their partner couldn’t pull the other end.

It is hard to draw a line between learning and understanding, the researchers conclude, but the elephants did engage in cooperative behaviour and paid attention to their partner.

Dr Don Moore, associate director of animal care science at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC, says observations of elephants suggests they do cooperate, but it hadn’t been experimentally tested before. “Elephants are big, they’re social, they live long lives and they’re really, really smart,” he says.

The findings were published on Monday in the Proceeding for the National Academy of Sciences.

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