Elephants Working Together to Solve Problems

Team work

An elephant family protecting its youngest member

Elephants often help each other through coordinated action. They circle around infants to protect them from predators. If one elephant gets stuck, others try to help rather than leave it. To solve problems as a team, animals need to read and respond to each others’ behaviour. They also need self-awareness, to understand the impact they have on others and the environment. These abilities are also important for perspective-taking and empathy.

A famous test of self-awareness is whether an animal can recognise itself in the mirror. Highly cooperative animals like great apes, dolphins and bird species have passed this test. An elephant was also successful – she reacted to a spot on her forehead by pointing to herself, rather than reacting as if her reflection were another elephant.[1] Other elephants struggled with this test, but elephants have poor vision. They would certainly not rely solely on their vision like this in the wild, but would also make use of sound, touch and scent.

In another study, elephants were investigated for their understanding of body-awareness – whether they understand their bodies are separate from, but have an impact on, their environment.[2] Elephants were trained to walk onto a mat, pick up a stick and pass it to a researcher, in exchange for a reward. Sometimes, the stick was attached to the mat by a string, meaning the elephant’s weight prevented them from passing the stick. When this was the case, the elephants stepped off the mat, suggesting they had body-awareness.

Great apes, birds and dolphins have been shown to work together as a team in another experiment which was recently adapted for elephants.[3] A rope was looped around a table and the rope ends were given to two elephants, standing alongside each other. There was food on the table, but the table was out of reach. If both elephants pulled their rope ends at the same time, the table would slide towards them, enabling them to reach the food. If only one elephant pulled, the rope would slide around the table, away from their partner, meaning both would lose their chance. The elephants quickly learned not to pull until their partner had picked up the rope. By reading each other and working together, they achieved a common goal.

This study also showed that different elephants have different approaches to solving problems. One sly elephant stepped on the rope and let their partner do all the pulling! One cautious elephant waited for their partner to arrive before even approaching the rope. Elephants also use team strategies to overcome farmland defence systems. In one study, one elephant stamped on an electric fence, while another removed it by uprooting the fence post.[4] While one herd may invade a crop field, another may stay away, depending on individual members and how they interact and make group decisions. Monitoring individual elephants and considering group dynamics may therefore help scientists predict herd behaviour.

The human population in Southeast Asia is increasing exponentially. Hundreds of humans and elephants die every year because of conflict. Land protection systems have had limited success, since elephants often figure out ways around them. Scientists think that various defence measures and alternative food sources could be placed more strategically, by getting to know elephants’ personalities. This may also help direct the relocation of specific elephants, for everyone’s safety. – Holly Collicott

Find out more:
Eleven elephants die after falling into waterfall trying to save calf. See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/elephant-deaths-waterfall-thailand-calf-khao-yai-a9147711.html
Elephant Self-Awareness Mirrors Humans. See: https://www.livescience.com/4272-elephant-awareness-mirrors-humans.html
Elephants’ ‘body awareness’ adds to increasing evidence of their intelligence. See: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/elephants-body-awareness-adds-to-increasing-evidence-of-their-intelligence
Researchers Are Learning How Asian Elephants Think—in Order to Save Them. See: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/researchers-learning-asian-elephants-think-save-them-180974366/

[1] Plotnik, J.M et al. (2006). Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. PNAS. 103 (45), 17053-17057.
[2] Dale, R & Plotnik, J.M. (2017). Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Nature. 7 (46309), https://doi.org/10.1038/srep46309.
[3] Plotnik, J.M et al. (2011). Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. PNAS. 108 (12), 5116-5121.
[4] Rothenberg Gritz, J. (2020). Researchers Are Learning How Asian Elephants Think—in Order to Save Them. Available: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/researchers-learning-asian-elephants-think-save-them-180974366/. Last accessed 23.11.21.

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