The prescient pachyderm: elephants are even smarter than we thought

August 19, 2011 • 10:15 am

If elephants are so smart, why aren’t they rich?  Seriously, folks, try the roast beef, and don’t forget to tip the waitress.

Elephants are known for their intelligence, but up to now have not been seen to engage in “insightful problem solving,” which I take to mean solving problems by thinking about them beforehand rather than simply by trial and error, and using two hitherto unconnected items together (like standing on a box to get food).  Such problem solving is known in other species, including chimps, birds, and other primates, but not in pachyderms.

A new paper in PLoS One (reference below), highlighted in a summary in piece in Science NOW, suggests that at least some elephants do indeed solve problems insightfully.  The paper reports that a 7-year-old male Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) could retrieve a cube from his enclosure, moving it to below a branch where fruit hung out of reach.  Standing on the cube, the elephant (named Kandula), then reached the fruit. Two other elephants, 33 and 61 years old, couldn’t do this, nor were any of the elephants able to use sticks to knock the fruit down.  Kaduna also showed the ability to use other objects, like a tire, as platforms to reach the food, and he even tried to stack blocks on top of each other to reach fruit that was hung higher; in this he was unsuccessful.

It’s an interesting finding, but does it merit a whole big paper on its own? Well, maybe it does show us new and unsuspected abilities of familiar species, and of course PLoS ONE doesn’t judge papers for their importance, but only by whether the conclusions are justified by the results. I like this result because it’s cute, but I don’t much like PLoS ONE’s publication policy.

Here’s Kaduna doing his thing:

[vodpod id=ExternalVideo.1002086&w=425&h=350&fv=]

And several more species engaged in insightful problem solving, with photos contributed by Matthew Cobb:

A chimp putting two sticks together to get fruit, and stacking boxes to the same end:

Pigeons, too, can move boxes to get food:

And of course our own species is not exempt from this behavior.  Here’s a human—in fact, it’s a young Matthew Cobb himself!—chained up in a yard, but using a spoon to get some milk that had been put out for the dog:

Of course when I saw the photos above I asked Matthew why on earth he had been chained up as a child.  Was this abuse? He reassured me:

Yes that is me. We were visiting my grandfather’s place—he had a dairy which delivered milk (that quaint UK custom). The yard had lorries and milk floats going in and out of it, so the safest thing to do with me as a toddler was to let me play in the sandy yard, but prevent me from going too far. They also put the dog’s milk out of reach. But I was too smart for them *mwaa-hah-hah*


Foerder P, Galloway M, Barthel T, Moore DE III, Reiss D. 2011. Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant. PLoS ONE 6(8): e23251. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023251

28 thoughts on “The prescient pachyderm: elephants are even smarter than we thought

  1. If elephants are so smart, why aren’t they rich? Seriously, folks, try the roast beef, and don’t forget to tip the waitress.

    🙂 When you retire you can do stand-up; the thinking-man’s Jerry Seinfeld …

  2. This is only going to encourage people to post terrible elephant jokes.
    Like why do the elephants have trunks?
    Because they would look silly in bikinis.

  3. Add elephants to the long list of critters that are on the road to human-like intelligence. This adds to the evidence that human intelligence is not a “one-off” production of evolution….

      1. Which reminds me of the story of the man who had an unfortunate accident at the same time as the death of a zoo elephant, so they settled on a remarkable solution.

        Punchline: “YOU feel uncomfortable? Where do you think these buns are going?”

    1. Where is the evidence that any of the ‘critters’ on your ‘long list’ are on any road to anywhere? How do you know they aren’t residing comfortably at their destination? And what about standing on a box is ‘human-like’?
      No, ‘human-like intelligence’ is definitely a one-off. Empirically. (“so far’ is was implicit.)

  4. It seemed like Kaduna put some thought into how to maneuver his own body to put it into a position where he could move the box. I wonder if the other elephants would do similar things if simply attempting to retrieve toys? Or is another sign of his intelligence?



    1. Yes, that was more interesting to me than the use of the box to get the treat. I don’t thing Shrub Bush would be been able to plan ahead like that.

  5. I’m surprised Matthew Cobb didn’t tell us the real story behind those photos, especially since Jerry’s topic is about problem-solving animals.

    It turns out that the family dog actually chained-up the young Matthew, and left him in his place beside the bowl of milk, so that he could scamper off and rut all afternoon long, with the poodle in heat next door.

    Clever dog.

  6. For what it is worth, I’ve pretty much stopped reading and commenting on (e.g., on my blog or on Twitter) anything that smells like “cognitive psychology”. It’s not that I reject outright the interpretations made by these investigators (and most other students of “flagship” species, including Homo)but that these studies and their attributions/conclusions are presented uncritically, before formal evaluation of–much less experimental tests of– hypotheses/biases. Indeed, there is rarely even debate about “higher-order”, perportedly conscious & aware propositions. Unfortunately, psychology and its followers have all but buried learning theories, except, for example, as explanations for planarian behavior and the like. Why not consider, for example, that the elephants’ apparently remarkable responses are a function of “transfer of training” whereby a rule learned in one situation is employed in another? or, possibly, the motor patterns result from social learning? or, maybe, the action patterns result from a “hard-wired” program favored by or a byproduct of selection to, using a chimpanzee example, stand on rocks to display aggressively or climb a tree to obtain food? Maybe climbing is primitively derived from mounting a conspecific for sexual congress or to display dominance. Similarly, motor learning is probaly ubiquitous in vertebrates; one might go on & on with other examples (e.g., some types of matching or vertical sensory biases). It seems possible that the frontal cortex functions primarily to inhibit or dis-inhibit signals originating elsewhere rather being a “piece of meat” with exceptional qualities (oh, I almost forgot; FCs are made in the image of God). It’s too bad that all undergraduates interested in any aspect of functional animal (including human) emissions aren’t required to study James Mazur’s classic introduction to learning & behavior (Prentice-Hall).

  7. p.s. Not only do cognitive types proselytize (sp?)their biases uncritically but other investigators, the public, & the media just eat this stuff up. Anthropomorphism is alive & well, retarding the scientific enterprise. On a related matter, humans probably aren’t nearly as bright as they appear to be, conscious & aware or not (see data on brain errors, vulnerability of complex systems, and the like).

    1. I’d be a lot more on board with this school of thought if I saw scientists going through these same calisthenics every time it was suggested that *people* were capable of thinking. On the one hand you have the anthropomorphism you’re so worried about, but at the other end of the spectrum there’s a level of human exceptionalism that strikes me as crypto-creationist. Given the number of times in the history of science that we have set ourselves up as the pinnacle of nature only to find that we are wrong, I am loath to accept any school of thought that starts with the assumption that humanity is unique. Historically it’s just a recipe for embarrassment.

    2. To put it another way with a couple more beers in me: I can’t think of a single other phenotype where, when we observe some apparent homology between related creatures, the burden of proof is (1) so incredibly stringent, and (2) entirely on those claiming that the phenotypes are homologous.

      If the default position were simply ignorance, I would be okay with that. Given that we share a lot of evolutionary history with all other animals, however, the assertion that the burden of proof lies entirely on those who would claim that the phenotype IS homologous seems to me entirely unwarranted, and completely out of line with how we would treat any other phenotype that was studied in an evolutionary context. That smacks to me of exceptionalism.

      If a new mammal were discovered tomorrow and we were simply told that it had legs, I think the majority of scientists would probably assume that the similarity between these new mammals and other mammals (the presence of legs) reflected a common mechanism due to a shared evolutionary history. I have yet to hear any valid reason why the same logic does not apply to behavior.

  8. My cat surprised me with planning. Mudpie was trained to go into her cat carrier responding to a circular hand motion. She was a reliable performer. She traveled to the office every day. One day she responded to the command and stopped suddenly at the door. She turned and ran to her cat box. She came back in a minute and went into the cat carrier. That seemed to me a considerable chain of logical connections.

  9. Is it just me, or does that chimp with the sticks have a very un-chimp-like face, especially the mouth area?

    1. You’re right, it does look odd. But this is a very old photo from the 1920s (the chimp was called Sultan), and has probably been retouched several times as it has been reproduced from reproductions.

  10. Could it be related to Von Economo neurons?

    Elephants are the only mammals known to have this special type of neuron, besides great apes and cetaceans.

    I didn’t really need to comment, but I just wanted to mention that Michael Egnor has just noticed Sam Harris’ video on free will and hasn’t started a thread. Why doesn’t everyone go over to ‘Egnorance’ and comment, so he doesn’t feel so lonely.

    1. Wayne, I took your advice and took a look at Egnorance. What a slough of despond that place is. “Polar bears aren’t drowning by the hundreds so global warming is a hoax”. 😀

  11. Seriously, what’s wrong with having a baby or young toddler with some sort of harness and leash? It’s a lot more comfortable for the kid than having to have his/her arm up to hold the hand of the parent/caregiver, and allows a nice combination of safety and independence. The kid can walk alone for short distances, both hands are free, but the range is strictly limited – no worries about running into the street, getting too close to the edge of the subway platform etc.

    1. no worries about running into the street, getting too close to the edge of the subway platform etc.

      …or having your kid run off straight into the ocean.

      my parents used a leash on me at that age for exactly that purpose.

  12. Quotemining is great.

    “Of course when I saw the photos above I asked Matthew why on earth he had been chained up as a child. Was this abuse? He reassured me:

    Yes …”

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