Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant

Posted on August 21, 2011  Comments (7)

Another example of very cool animal behavior. This Asian Elephant, seemed to consider the problem, devise a solution and then go get a stool to reach food that could not be reached without a tool.

Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant

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.

Further inspired by Köhler’s chimpanzee studies, in experiment 4 we conducted 8 additional sessions to investigate whether Kandula would stack items to reach food. For these sessions, the baited branches were hung at a height that could be reached by stacking three butcher block cutting boards or by the use of other objects. In addition, the elephant was given sticks and other enrichment items. Kandula first touched several items and then moved two items, a plastic disk and a block under the suspended branches, placing one front foot on each in an unsuccessful attempt to reach for the branch. He solved the problem in an unexpected novel manner, moving and standing on the object closest in size to the absent cube, a large ball. Standing on unstable platforms such as this had not been previously observed. He repeated this behavior 9 times during this session. During the session’s last minutes, Kandula picked up a block ~2 m from the food and placed it directly on top of a block that he placed under the food in a previous attempt. He stood on the stacked blocks and attempted to reach the food but was unsuccessful. He stacked two blocks again in the second and sixth sessions but each time his trunk was several inches from the food.

This is very cool research. I do wonder why they didn’t provide more videos (and in a more user-friendly format than .mov files). I made them available via YouTube.

It seems like a very interesting area to have more experiments with more elephants (and continuing to work with Kandula: he seems to be very curious elephant, good for him).

Related: Orangutan Attempts to Hunt Fish with SpearBird Using Bait to Catch FishCrows Transferring Their Understanding to Novel ProblemCapuchin Monkeys Using Stone ToolsFighting Elephant Poaching With SciencePhoto of Fish Using a Rock to Open a Clam

I don’t really understand why the view for the stacking video isn’t a bit better. It seems like they could have provided a better angle to see what was going on. It also would be interesting to see the elephant attempting to stand up on the ball (I imagine just the front two legs). Their description of the stacking attempt is a bit more impressive than the video they showed (in my opinion).

Overall this is a very cool experiment. This is the kind of thing I figured being a scientist was about as a kid. Of course, I figured it was similar to expanding what we have here to fill the whole year – doing this one day and all sorts of other cool exciting stuff the next. Not that this is the highlights of a long research project.

7 Responses to “Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant”

  1. Wesley
    August 21st, 2011 @ 2:25 am

    Wow.. And the ‘stool’ wasn’t just right there.. He/She had to walk a distance to get it and bring it back. Very fun to watch! W

  2. Anonymous
    August 29th, 2011 @ 8:44 am

    Very cool. I like watching these kinds of animal thinking shows on TV.

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