- Animal cognition scientists designed an open-air experiment to test wild elephants’ problem-solving abilities for the first time.
- They observed that Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand could figure out how to work doors that opened in three different ways: push, pull, and slide.
- Five out of 44 animals succeeded in opening all three doors, eight opened two doors, and another 11 opened one door.
- The study captured “individual variation in the problem-solving ability of wild elephants,” Lisa P. Barrett, an expert in animal cognition, told Mongabay. “If we know something about ‘problem individuals’ who are learning and spreading problematic behaviors, such as crop raiding, we may be able to design targeted intervention efforts that mitigate human-elephant conflict.”
Opening doors may not seem that hard, but when you have a trunk instead of hands, things can get complicated. Researchers tested the problem-solving skills of wild elephants for the first time by tasking the jumbos with doing just that.
Elephants are brainy. An adult elephant’s brain weighs 5 kilograms (11 pounds), the largest of any terrestrial animal (and three times the size of the human brain). From living in complex social groups mourning their dead to finding elusive water sources, pachyderms display a range of intelligent behaviors.
“In other species that have been tested for innovation, bigger brains have been correlated with more innovation,” said Sarah Jacobson at the City University of New York’s Comparative Cognition for Conservation Lab. “We wanted to come up with a way to measure this in wild elephants.”
To find out if more gray matter actually translates to better problem-solving skills, Jacobson and her team designed an experiment engaging Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at Thailand’s Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in an open-air puzzle.
They came up with a contraption with three small compartments that had doors that opened in three different ways: push, pull, and slide. Inside each nook lay a morsel of juicy jackfruit, their favorite snack.
Five of the 44 elephants that engaged with the box managed to open all three doors. Eight managed to open two, and another 11 opened just one. The number of doors they opened captured their ability to innovate under the experiment, with the findings recently published in the journal Animal Behaviour.
The five who scored all doors were older males. It wasn’t clear from the data what role gender played in their success. What the results did show was that persistence paid off. The more time an elephant spent interacting with the puzzle, the higher its chances of success. Trying different actions also yielded rewards.
The team first piloted the experiment at a zoo in the U.S., where more than 60% of the jumbo participants opened all three doors (eight out of 14). Jacobson attributed their better performance to their environment and experience. “All of their food and needs are taken care of,” she said, adding that captive elephants have “fewer distractions” compared to their wild cousins.
Zoo-housed elephants are also exposed to a more interactive environment: zookeepers like to keep things interesting for their wards, which is helpful when facing another human-concocted challenge.
“It is important to study the cognition of elephants given how intelligent and endangered they are,” said Lisa P. Barrett, an expert in animal cognition at Indiana University Bloomington, who was not involved with the study. “We may learn how to help conserve Asian elephants, for example, by better understanding how they approach and solve a novel problem.”
Jacobson said that with growing pressures on elephant habitats, jumbos faced a changing environment and novel challenges. However, the cleverness of elephants can be tricky for the people who share space with them. For one thing, smart elephants will find ways around the barriers that communities put up to protect life, livestock and property.
In Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, for instance, electric fences haven’t been able to deter tuskers. Elephants there quickly learned that their tusks didn’t conduct electricity. Soon, they started using them to manipulate and break through the barriers. In one video uploaded by researchers at Lewa, an African elephant can be seen holding the wires up with its tusks, allowing another to pass beneath.
Such ingenious displays may make for compelling viewing on social media, but on the ground, it can signal trouble to come.
Jacobson’s adviser at CUNY recommended Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary for her study because of the intensity of human-elephant conflicts there. People living around the sanctuary have tried everything from firecrackers to electric barriers to beehives to keep elephants out. The current study focused on elephants living deep within the reserve.
“We are planning to test this on elephants living on the edges of the sanctuary,” Jacobson said, which might tell researchers more about herds and individual members that are more likely to come in contact with neighboring communities.
When trying to soothe conflicts between the two species — humans and elephants — paying attention to the latter helps. That means studying all aspects of elephant intelligence: how they perceive and navigate the world.
It might be possible to eventually create profiles of individual elephants. These may be useful in cases where some particularly feisty and artful individuals cause a lot of damage. It can allow people to come up with better ways to prevent harm from their wild neighbors at large. For example, if the concerned elephant is timid, loud noises may be enough to repel it rather than expensive fencing.
While this appears to punish the more enterprising elephants, reducing dangerous interactions can, in fact, promote their welfare.
“Jacobson and colleagues showed that there is individual variation in problem-solving ability of wild elephants,” Barrett said. “If we know something about ‘problem individuals’ who are learning and spreading problematic behaviors, such as crop raiding, we may be able to design targeted intervention efforts that mitigate human-elephant conflict.”
Banner image: A herd of wild elephants in Thailand. Image by DigitalDDay via Pixabay (Public domain).
Video: Life in the awe-and-terror-inspiring vicinity of the Sumatran elephant
Jacobson, S. L., Dechanupong, J., Horpiencharoen, W., Yindee, M., & Plotnik, J. M. (2023). Innovating to solve a novel puzzle: Wild Asian elephants vary in their ability to problem solve. Animal Behaviour, 205, 227-239. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2023.08.019
Plotnik, J. M., & Jacobson, S. L. (2022). A “thinking animal” in conflict: Studying wild elephant cognition in the shadow of anthropogenic change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 46, 101148. doi: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2022.101148
Jacobson, S. L., Puitiza, A., Snyder, R. J., Sheppard, A., & Plotnik, J. M. (2021). Persistence is key: Investigating innovative problem solving by Asian elephants using a novel multi-access box. Animal Cognition, 25(3), 657-669. doi:10.1007/s10071-021-01576-3
Mutinda, M., Chenge, G., Gakuya, F., Otiende, M., Omondi, P., Kasiki, S., … Alasaad, S. (2014). Detusking fence-breaker elephants as an approach in human-elephant conflict mitigation. PLOS ONE, 9(3), e91749. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091749