Elephant Insight

With each passing week, it seems like we’re finding out more and more about how smart elephants are. Now, in addition to their other cognitive abilities, it turns out that elephants can have “aha!” moments of insight as they face puzzling dilemmas. [No, not a-ha as in 1980s synth-pop from Norway; if you're looking for an early MTV a-ha moment, you should probably go here!]

Elephants have the largest brains and the greatest volume of cerebral cortex of all terrestrial mammals. They live in elaborate matriarchal societies that include long-lasting relationships, close family bonds, and complex social groupings that change over time. They squabble and negotiate with each other over travel directions; they flirt, show empathy towards one another and solve problems cooperatively. They are one of the very few animals that can recognize themselves in mirrors (more about self-recognition testing here and here). True to their reputations, they have terrific memories, are adept at making and using tools, are logical thinkers, and even appear to mourn their dead in a “ceremonial” manner suggesting they may have a real awareness of the separate lives and experiences of other elephants.

Until now, however, on the few occasions when elephants have been tested for insightful problem solving abilities, they have been performed poorly. In these previous tests, the elephants failed to use their trunks in order to gain access to food treats that had been placed just beyond reach (for example, by using a stick grasped in the trunk to reach out for the food, or by pulling on a retractable cord with their trunks in order to reel in the food reward).

In a paper just published online on August 18th in PLoS ONE, a research team led by Preston Foerder and Diana Reiss of the City University of New York reported on its own revelation that led to a breakthrough in tests for elephant problem-solving insight. The researchers surmised that the problem with prior testing was not that elephants were incapable of insight, but rather that the tests had called for the elephants to act in ways that undermined their ability to use their trunks as effective sense organs during the task:

We believe that the problem in previous studies has been in treating the elephant trunk as a grasping appendage analogous to a primate hand. Although the trunk is a highly manipulable appendage, in food foraging its function as a sensory organ may take precedence. The elephant has an extraordinary sense of smell, and the tip of the trunk is as highly enervated as a human fingertip…. When a stick is held in the trunk, the tip is curled backwards and may be closed, prohibiting olfactory and tactile feedback…. We posit that previous failures to observe insightful problem solving in elephants is not indicative of a lack of cognitive ability but rather is due to the reliance on problem solving tasks that precluded the use of the trunk as a sense organ.

To address this issue, the researchers set up a series of experiments designed to allow elephants to keep their trunks free while facing problem-solving challenges. They tested three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), two adult females and a 7-year-old juvenile male, at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, with the juvenile male, Kandula, soon emerging as the rock star problem-solver.

In the first experiment, the researchers dangled enticing fruit rewards from a cable they had placed across the elephant yard, including from positions that were just beyond trunk-reach. After leaving a large plastic cube and some other objects in the yard, they let Kandula into the yard for sessions to see whether he would figure out how to obtain the dangling food reward. While Kandula had previously played with the cube as an enrichment toy, he had no prior training in pushing large objects or in standing on them to reach for things.

During an initial six sessions, each lasting 20 some minutes, Kandula showed interest in the food dangling above his reach, played with the cube, moved it on several occasions, and once even stood on it briefly, but never tried to reach out for anything while standing on the cube.

Then, during the seventh session, Kandula suddenly had his moment of epiphany: he rolled the cube into position beneath the hanging food, stood on the cube with his front two feet, stretched out his trunk, and grabbed his prize.

Kandula - Insightful and Now Less Hungry Elephant

From then on, Kandula was off to the races. In the next session, he not only rolled the cube over and stood on it to reach the fruit again, he also started using the cube as a tool to reach other objects: e.g., standing on it to explore the inside of an enrichment object and, after rolling it to the edge of the yard, using it as a platform to reach for blossoms on an overhanging tree branch.

Moreover, Kandula showed he was able to apply his insight to new situations. For example, in a second experiment, the researchers used the same general setup, but began moving the cube around from place to place, including behind fences and in locations that Kandula couldn’t see as he entered the yard. In each case, Kandula found the cube and rolled it over to capture his food reward. Here’s a video of Kandula retrieving the cube from behind a fence:

Next, the researchers replaced the cube with a large tractor tire – in three of four sessions Kandula used the tire as a tool, rolling it to the proper place, and then standing on it to obtain the food reward.

In a final experiment, the researchers replaced the cube and the tire with a variety of other objects, including large plastic balls, discs, cones, a barrel lid and three cutting boards that would have to be stacked to form a platform for Kandula to reach the food. While Kandula didn’t stack all three boards (he did stack two, though), he experimented with various approaches such as standing with one foot on separate objects. Ultimately, he reached the food by standing on a plastic ball, a solution that surprised the researchers since he had never placed his weight on a similarly unstable platform before.

So, to summarize, Kandula demonstrated sudden insight – using a tool to solve a problem in a novel and spontaneous fashion, without evidence of prior trial and error learning. Further, he showed that he could repeat, transfer and extend his technique in subsequent sessions.

If you’re an elephant, please feel free to give yourself a pat on the back. Job well done!


1Foerder, P., Galloway, M., Barthel, T., Moore, D., & Reiss, D. (2011). Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant PLoS ONE, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023251.

About these ads
Leave a comment


  1. Charlotte Mielziner

     /  December 9, 2011

    The intelligence of elephants is amazing. That the two researchers saw the behavioral issue correctly is reminiscent of the old Hungarian research that stated wolves were smarter than dogs. A modern researcher thought it looked like the dogs were waiting for permission from the handler. Indeed, when the handlers was allowed to encourage the dogs, they scored equally well to wolves. The result of tens of thousands of years of selective breeding? Sounds possible, if not probable.

  1. Setting His Own Dinner Table: Spontaneous Tool Use by a Dingo « AnimalWise

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: