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Elephants belong to the elite among intelligent, socially complex animals.

Elephants belong to the elite among intelligent, socially complex animals.

Elephants are widely assumed to keep company with the most cognitive of the advanced animals. However, conclusive evidence that this is indeed the case has long been lacking. This is primarily due to the difficulty – and danger! – of submitting the largest land animal to behavioural experiments. In an attempt to remedy this situation, a classic cooperative hypothesis from the 1930s, originally designed for chimpanzees, was modified to measure the reactions of elephants.


The experiment was conducted by a research team from Cambridge University in 2011 with Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) which lived in the wild. It was organised by way of placing two elephants behind a fence. In front of them both, some distance away, stood a metal platform, and on it there were two bowls of appetising treats. This apparatus was connected to a rope. In order to achieve their goal, both elephants were required to pull each end of the rope simultaneously. Only then could the metal platform can be rolled over and the goodies be brought within easy reach.


Because the elephants were both hungry and crazy about these tit-bits, their motives require a moment’s reflection. The elephants did not succeed with their mission at first. One elephant pulled the rope in vain while the other was easily distracted. After a while though, their determination grew and, with it, their insight.


They both succeeded in pulling on the rope at the same time, the metal platform rolled towards them and – Eureka! – they got their reward.


With the eventual success of their efforts, the researchers allowed one elephant to go walkabout for a while. After 45 seconds though, it returned to meet its waiting companion. Both pulled at the string, the metal platform was moved towards them again, and another reward was attained.

In a third variation, the researchers left one end of the rope out of reach of the elephants. Thus, it was pointless to pull at the other end. Neither of the elephants made any effort to pull at the end that was available to them as they knew it would never lead to the goodies anyway.


These behaviour paradigms show that elephants can solve a socially complex problem in order to achieve a common goal – in this case, the benefit waiting for them on the metal platform. An elephant can inhibit a lace puller for up to 45 seconds if a partner’s arrival is delayed.


Furthermore, an elephant understands that there is no value in pulling on a string that has no correlation with a satisfactory result.


Overall, these experiments show that elephants possess the ability to co-operate, to perceive an underlying concept, to manage their labour and to remember a lesson. Through convergent development, elephants have reached a level of co-operative competence in the same way as chimpanzees. Thus they reside easily in the elite club of intelligent and socially complex animals.


Solblomma Hedin

(Editing done by David James Bentley)

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References: Joshua M Plotnik, Richard Lair, Wirot Suphachoksahakun, Frans B.M. de Waal (2011) Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America)


Charles Q. Choi (2011) Elephants Cooperate, Proving how Smart They Really Are (Live Science Contributor)


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Picture text: If the elephants didn’t cooperate and both tug the rope at the same time, they missed out on a yummy corn snack.