The Smartitude of the Noble Elephant

The Unbearable Smartitude of the Noble Elephant

Apropos of Grim's series of posts on thinking horses, allow me to present my favorite animal: the elephant.
Elephants recently aced a test of their intelligence and ability to cooperate, with two of them even figuring out ways that the researchers hadn't previously considered to obtain food rewards.

The study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights not only the intelligence of individual elephants, but also the ability of these animals to cooperate and understand the value of teamwork.

Scientists now believe elephants are in league with chimpanzees and dolphins as being among the world's most cognitively advanced animals.

... The researchers positioned a sliding table, holding enticing red bowls full of yummy corn, some distance away from a volleyball net. A rope was tied around the table such that the table would only move if two elephants working together pulled on the dangling rope ends. If just one elephant pulled, the rope would unravel. To get to the front of the volleyball net, the elephants had to walk down two separate, roped-off lanes.

A total of 12 male and female elephants from the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand, participated. It's estimated that fewer than 2,500 of these animals are left in the Thai jungle, so conservation efforts now are critical.

After quickly learning that the corn-on-the-table task could not be successfully completed solo, elephants would wait up to 45 seconds for the second "partner" elephant to show up. If the researchers did not release this second elephant, the first one basically looked around as if to say: "You've got to be kidding. It takes two to do this." In most cases, the elephants got the corn.

Two elephants, named Neua Un and JoJo, even figured out how to outwit the researchers.

"We were pleasantly surprised to see the youngest elephant, Neua Un, use her foot to hold the rope so that her partner had to do all the work," Plotnik said. "I hadn't thought about this beforehand, and Neua Un seemed to figure it out by chance, but it speaks volumes to the flexibility of elephant behavior that she was able to figure this out and stick to it."

The other "cheater," JoJo, didn't even bother to walk up to the volleyball net unless his partner, Wanalee, was released.

"Perhaps he had learned that if he approached the rope without her, he'd fail," Plotnik said, adding that such advanced learning, problem-solving, and cooperation are rare in the animal kingdom. Other animals clearly engage in teamwork, but he thinks they are "pre-programmed for it," unlike elephants that seem to understand the full process.

The study interested me because of the fairly widespread tendency to use "science" to excuse selfish, self interested, or outright amoral behavior on the rather shaky grounds that such behaviors are "natural". I've never been sure who these folks are arguing with (their own consciences, perhaps?) - spend a few moments watching small children and it's impossible to escape the conclusion that we humans, left to ourselves, can be real pips.

Instinct doesn't - and can't - explain the complex behaviors of either animals or humans. And in the case of humans, we can study something more relevant than the mating rituals of lemurs: we have recorded history. Human civilization is based on the observed truth that we can and do rise above our instincts all the time. But for those determined to ignore more pertinent comparisons, there is plentiful evidence in the animal kingdom that qualities like altruism, cooperation, and even the willingness to sacrifice for others have tremendous adaptive value. Just watch these elephants cooperating to achieve something neither of them would be able to do on their own.
I really enjoy reading studies, but tend to have far more faith in them when the results surprise the researchers (or contradict the hypothesis being tested) than when the study conveniently proves a scientist right.

Or maybe I just really like elephants :p

Discussion question for the day: do female elephants wear makeup for other female elephants, or is this evidence of lingering patriarchal oppression and objectification by the male of the species? Inquiring minds want to know.

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