Experiments with zoo elephants has revealed problem-solving “insight” by a young male Asian elephant. The insight, known as the “Aha!” moment, occurred without trial and error behavior and offers proof of the species’ significant problem-solving capabilities.
The broad intelligence of elephants has been fairly well documented — with some elephants passing the “red smudge” (mirror self-recognition) test indicating self-awareness — but how extensive the pachyderms’ problem solving skills are, compared to apes, has been a matter of debate; despite their high intelligence, elephants have “failed to exhibit insightful problem solving in previous cognitive studies.”
But a recent experiment involving three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. has revealed at least one elephant experiencing that moment of intellectual breakthrough known as the ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka! moment. Spontaneous problem solving without evident trial and error behavior (whether animal or human) is known as insight. In the experiments, three Asian elephants — two older females and one younger male elephant named Kandula — were presented with a problem-solving challenge: obtain food that was placed out of “trunk reach”.
Placed within the elephants’ enclosure was a large box (cubic platform) strong enough for the elephants to stand on (and offering enough elevation to enable reaching the food attached to a high branch). Although Kandula had been trained to stand on the cube for play, it was not clear initially if the 7 year old juvenile elephant could connect the dots and use it as a tool (i.e., exhibit “insight”). But in at least two instances, Kandula was observed using the box to obtain the out-of-reach food. Initially, the box was positioned near the branch containing the food. Kandula had successfully used the box as a platform to reach the food-baited branch. But in a subsequent test, the box was placed at a distance from the branch to determine if the elephant’s problem solving ability was more advanced. Sure enough, Kandula was caught on video dragging the cube some distance and positioning it beneath the branch so as to stand on it and reach the food.
Watch Kandula the Elephant in his ‘Aha! moment! (article continues below)
Zoologists had previously tested the elephants by providing bamboo sticks just beyond the bars of their cages but within grasping reach; the goal being to see if the animals would use the sticks to obtain the food. These initial tests with sticks were not successful. It is hypothesized that this failure to use the sticks to obtain food may have been due to a misapprehension on the part of the researchers concerning the main role of the creature’s trunk, which is not primarily for grasping (like a primate’s hand), but for food sensing; as the elephants were able to grasp the sticks, but in so doing, the tips of their trunks would curl inward, possibly preventing them from locating/sensing the out-of-reach food items.
However, in the case of Kandula, introduction of the cube platform produced quite different and remarkable results. According to the PLoS ONE paper (Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant, Foerder et al),
“Without prior trial and error behavior, a 7-year-old male Asian elephant showed spontaneous problem solving by moving a large plastic cube, on which he then stood, to acquire the food.”
What’s more, further testing of Kandula showed even more “behavioral flexibility” as he would use the same technique to acquire other objects. Also, when researcher took the large cube away, the juvenile elephant was able to generalize this tool utilization technique to other objects — stacking smaller objects on top of each other to obtain the food. Thus the elephant’s behavior was deemed to represent proof of “insightful problem solving.”
Quoting from the paper:
” The sequence of behavior exhibited by Kandula, moving the cube and standing on it to reach food, constitutes a more complex series of events that cannot be accounted for by past training.”
It is not clear from this research why the older females did not exhibit comparable behavior as the younger male (note: they did show interest in the food), but this may be due to the much greater age of the females; as in humans, cognitive ability in the young is more flexible as the brain is still developing.