Talented Trunks: Asian Elephants Are Capable of Using Water as a Tool

Elephants are known for their complex cognitive abilities, such as memory, problem-solving and tool use, and for their complex social behaviors. In Summer 2017, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden’s Asian elephant, Chandra, demonstrated her smarts in an inventive study, which was recently released as a new research article in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition. The research describes how Asian elephants perform on the floating object task, which is an established test of tool use and problem-solving.
The publication of this study, written by myself and Sarah Benson-Amram in the University of Wyoming’s Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab, was made possible with help from research assistants and the incredible elephant caretakers at our two participating zoos.
 
Throughout the study, we worked with 12 Asian elephants - housed at the OKC Zoo and the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., and both accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).
 
The floating object task was established as a standard assessment for comparing insightful tool use across species, yet it had only been presented to primates previously. In the floating object task, an animal is presented with a tube containing some water and a floating reward, such as a peanut or a marshmallow. To access the reward, the animal must add more water to the tube, which raises the water level and brings the reward within reach.
 
Primates, such as orangutans and chimpanzees, often spit water into the tube. Here, we were curious if elephants could use their trunks to solve the task.
 
Elephants use water all of the time for drinking and bathing, so I was fascinated to see if they would solve the floating object task. Shanthi, an elephant at the National Zoological Park, solved the floating object task. On her very first trial, Shanthi used her trunk to add water to the tube, but she did not add enough water to reach the marshmallow. In her second trial, she added enough water to raise the marshmallow to the top of the tube.
 
Shanthi had been anecdotally known to add water to enrichment items at the zoo, so her previous experience presumably played a role in her ability to solve the novel task. Shanthi was also able to solve the problem faster in each trial, which provided evidence of her learning to solve the task.
 
Because only one elephant was able to solve the task successfully, we sought to gain a better understanding of why the task was challenging for the elephants and how social behavior played a role. This led us to shift our focus to more of a social learning study by testing if the elephants could learn how to solve the puzzle from one another.
To do this, we had inexperienced elephants watch Shanthi solve the problem at the National Zoological Park. Once Shanthi completed the puzzle, the observing elephants were presented with the task on their own, to determine if they had learned how to solve it.
 
The OKC Zoo’s 24-year-old female elephant, Chandra, was also trained by her caretakers to add water to the tube. After a few training sessions, Chandra was able to solve the task on her own successfully and demonstrated the solution for the observing elephants.
 
Though none of the observing elephants at either zoo solved the task after watching three demonstrations, we did find that the elephants at the OKC Zoo spent more time interacting with the task, compared to control elephants that did not receive a demonstration before beginning to manipulate the apparatus. This confirmed that the observing elephants were paying attention to Chandra as she solved the puzzle.
 
There are a number of factors that could have influenced these findings, including age of the observers/demonstrators, relationship to the demonstrator, as well as habitat-size and feeding schedules. For example, at the OKC Zoo, two of the observers, Asha and Achara, were related to the demonstrator, so that may have motivated them to pay more attention. It is also possible that number of demonstrations was insufficient for the observers to learn the task from the demonstrator.
 
Alternatively, observers may have been unable to detect the water level and/or reward, or the observers could have relied more on their senses of smell and sound, rather than sight.As a result of this study, we are also investigating how individual variations, such as personalities, played a role in determining which elephants solved the puzzles we presented them. Although more research is needed to determine elephants’ level of understanding of the task, we found that at least one Asian elephant is capable of using water as a tool to solve the problem.
 
As a researcher and post-doctoral fellow in animal behavior at the OKC Zoo, my role is to collaborate with researchers, design research studies and implement new studies, collect and analyze valuable data to produce manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals and present/teach at universities and conferences. I enjoy the challenge of thinking like the animals I study. It’s fun to design studies and ask questions that the animals can understand. It is important for the animals to understand what we are asking of them so that we can figure out how and why they display specific behaviors.
 
Encouraging more studies with diverse species could help researchers gain a more in-depth understanding of the evolution of animal cognition.
 
This type of cognitive research has implications for elephant welfare and management in human care, as well as elephant conservation in the wild. Asian elephants are endangered, in part, because of conflict with humans when they raid farmland, and cognition could play a key role in terms of which individuals raid and how successful they are in raiding.
 
 
- Dr. Lisa Barrett, post-doctoral fellow in animal behavior
 
 
Information courtesy of University of Wyoming
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