Unloosening The Chains Of Elephants.
Elephants have large complex brains, exhibit complex social behaviour, show a facility with tools, and are generally thought to be highly intelligent. Cognitive studies have demonstrated that elephants are capable of visual symbol discrimination and long term memory, means-end recognition, relative quantity judgment, mirror self-recognition, tool use, tool manufacture, and an understanding of cooperation. Compared to the vast amount of cognitive research in other species, such as primates and birds, a full accounting of the elephant’s cognitive abilities is far from complete. However, these studies indicate advanced cognition in elephants. In light of these findings, it is surprising that elephants have been reported to perform poorly in spontaneous or insightful problem solving tasks. This cognitive deficit is unexpected because spontaneous and insightful problem solving has been shown in various species that show comparable cognitive abilities to elephants. For example, in Köhler’s classic studies, chimpanzees solved problems suddenly, without trial and error, by using boxes and sticks to acquire bananas hung overhead beyond their reach. Köhler claimed this was indicative of insight. To further investigate elephants’ capacity for insightful problem solving, we initially tested whether three elephants, two adult females, a 33-year-old and a 61-year-old, and a 7-year-old juvenile male (ages at time of testing), at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Washington, D.C., USA. Without prior trial and error behaviour, 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. In further testing he showed behavioural flexibility, using this technique to reach other items and retrieving the cube from various locations to use as a tool to acquire food. In the cube’s absence, he generalised this tool utilisation technique to other objects and, when given smaller objects, stacked them in an attempt to reach the food. The elephant’s overall behaviour was consistent with the definition of insightful problem solving. Credit: Research article Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant by Preston Foerder et al., Published 18 August 2011 in the Journal Pone.
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