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:
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:
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