A problem-solving ‘pachyderm’

Although it’s not quite evidence of a mastery of long division, zoologists have recently reported that a juvenile Asian elephant has demonstrated rudimentary problem-solving techniques.

According to Preston Foerder, the lead author of the new study, elephants had previously failed at problem-solving exercises because they were tested as if they were primates, being asked to use their trunks to hold sticks as we would do with our hands. Since elephant trunks, while capable of holding items, are primarily used for smelling and eating, Foerder tried an alternative route – one that would enable the animal to use its senses without being handicapped by compromising the trunk’s natural use.

Zoologists termed the animal’s first reported problem-solving success its “Eureka” moment. At the Smithsonian National Zoo (Washington, DC), three elephants – a 33-year-old female, a 61-year-old female, and a seven-year-old juvenile male named Kandula – were individually tested. During the trial, a branch was baited with food but was hung just out of “trunk’s reach;” however, a nearby box was available – one that the animals could move with their front feet (if they chose to) and that was also strong enough to support their weight. Although all three of the elephants had been previously trained to stand on the cube, it was Kandula who dragged the box beneath the branch to reach the food and got it on his seventh try.

Read the original press release “Aha! Elephants can use insight to solve problems”

Photo Credit: Brit

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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