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Cooperating Comes Easy To Elephants

March 8, 2011

In a series of tests in Thailand, researchers learned that elephants can cooperate to solve a problem, as reported in Monday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Elephants are socially complex,” lead researcher Joshua M. Plotnik, study leader from the University of Cambridge explained to AP, “They help others in distress.”

“They seem in some ways emotionally attached to each other, so you would expect there would be some level of cooperation.” However, he added, “I was surprised how quickly they learned.”

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 tests involved food rewards placed on a platform on the ground connected to a rope with the elephants behind a fence.

The elephants, to get the food closer to them, had to pull the two ends of the rope at the same time to drag the platform under the fence. Pulling one end resulted in nothing but rope. 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 recognize 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 concluded, but the elephants did engage in cooperative behavior and paid attention to their partner.

Adam Stone, elephant program manager at Zoo Atlanta, told AP it was significant that the elephants learned quickly. “We’re learning about the amazing mind of the elephant,” he said. It was long thought that learning and cooperation were limited to primates, and “it’s interesting to see that these other species are on the ball,” Stone explained.

Associate director of animal care science at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, Don Moore, explains that observations of elephants have suggested that they 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 said.

The youngest elephant in the study quickly learned that she did not have to do any pulling to get a treat. “She could just put her foot on the rope, so her partner had to do all the work,” said Dr. Plotnik.

Many scientists, photographers and film-makers have documented remarkable behavior by wild elephants, including “targeted helping” of other elephants that become stuck in mud. There have even been reports of elephants appearing to mourn their dead.

“As humans, we like to show that we’re unique,” said Plotnik, “but we’re repeatedly shot down. One thing that remains is our language. But amazingly complex behaviors – culture, tool use, social interaction – we see all of this in the animal kingdom.”

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