In an apparent flash of insight, a young Asian elephant in a zoo turned a plastic cube into a stoolâ€”and a toolâ€”a new study says.
That eureka moment is the first evidence that pachyderms can run problem-solving scenarios in their heads, then mentally map out an effective solution, and finally, put the plan into action, researchers say.
During the study seven-year-old Kandula was eager to reach a cluster of fruit attached to a branch that was suspended from a wire, just out of reach. After some apparent thought, the young male rolled a large plastic cube under the branch and stepped up to snatch the treat with his trunkâ€”a feat he repeated several times over multiple days with the cube and with a tractor tire.
The youngest elephant at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Kandula had never before been seen moving an object and standing on it to obtain items, and he didn’t arrive at his solution by trial and error, said study co-author Diana Reiss, who studies animal intelligence in elephants and dolphins at Hunter College at City University in New York.
Only a few speciesâ€”such as humans, crows, and chimpanzeesâ€”have demonstrated spontaneous insight, the ability to suddenly, mentally figure out the solution to a physical problem, Reiss said.
No Blocked Nasal Passages
Researchers gave Kandula various objects that could have been used to reach the fruit, including sticks that he could have grasped with his trunk to knock the snacks down.
That Kandula didn’t do this initially puzzled the scientists, until they realized that using sticks in this way would be unnatural for elephants.
Elephants are known to use sticks as toolsâ€”as back scratchers, for exampleâ€”but not when foraging. That’s because the mammals rely heavily on the trunks’ sense of smell and touch when seeking out food. Holding anything in their trunks would prevent them from effectively feeling and sniffing out dinner, the researchers say.
“It’s as if your eyes were in the palm of your hand and I said, Pick up this tool and go get that thing. As soon as you did that, you’d lose your primary sense,” explained study co-author Preston Foerder of the City University of New York.
Elephant’s “Sudden Revelation”
For several sessions, Kandula just stared at the hanging fruit, ignoring the stick as well as the cube that was nearby.
“He did not attempt to use a tool to reach the food for seven 20-minute sessions on seven different days,” Hunter College’s Reiss said.
“And then he finally had what looked to be this sudden revelation, and he headed right over to the block, pushed it in a direct line right underneath the fruit, and stepped right up on it and got the food in one swift movement.
“We can’t get inside their heads … but the fact that he immediately went over to the block suggests that he was imagining [the process] ahead of time,” Reiss said.
Primatologist Frans de Waal agreed.
“In order to go to another place to go find a tool that is not visibly near the goal, the elephant needs to imagine what he needs, know where to find it, move away from the goal he wants to reach, in order to find the tool, and so onâ€”all of which goes far beyond the usual learning patterns of most animals,” said de Waal, of the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University, in an email.
The finding “is further proof that elephants are right up there with other large-brained animals when it comes to cause-effect understanding and mental problem solving,” added de Waal, who wasn’t part of the study.
Kandula Smarter Than the Average Elephant?
Two older elephants were also tested, but they failed to show the same kind of insightful thinking.
“Perhaps they didn’t care enough to try to get the fruit, or it could have been age-related,” Hunter College’s Reiss said.
To be fair, Kandula is an exceptionally inquisitive and intelligent elephant, study co-author Don Moore said.
“Among the smart elephantsâ€”and all elephants are smart … we think Kandula is one of the smarter ones,” said Moore, associate director for animal-care sciences at the National Zoo.
Moore said he hopes the discovery will help raise awareness about the plight of Asian elephants, which are endangered.
“Studies like this can help people relate more closely to animals because it makes them more like us,” he said. “If we can empathize with animals, we are more likely to help conserve them.”