Using Their Little Grey Cells

Amazing, if not surprising, study showing that elephants cooperate to get food. And even cheat. Lots going on in those big, social brains.

There are short write-ups of the study, conducted by Joshua Plotnik, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, up on New Scientist and Wired Science. The work was done with 12 Asian elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand.

Plotnik wanted to investigate whether cooperation, known anecdotally in elephants, could be shown through a rigorous experiment. He was scaling up a study previously done with bonobos, in which two bonobos had to cooperate to pull a heavy box and get a food reward. Neither bonono had the strength to pull the box singly, so cooperation and planning were essential to reach the reward. The problem was, once the box was scaled up to a weight an elephant couldn’t pull alone, Plotnik would have a box the size of a jumbo jet!

The video shows Plotnik’s elegant solution. The entire paper, which makes good reading, is available online at PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. If you don’t normally seek out the papers on which popular news stories about science stories are based, I recommend it. IMHO, more nonspecialists should learn their way around a real scientific paper, and it’s a habit that can start pretty young.

Plotnik is a former student of Frans de Waal, a comparative psychologist and the dean of altrusiam and cooperation in animals. I had the privilege of working with DeWaal on Animal Social Complexity and Intelligence, co-edited with Peter J. Tyack. That book is a fascinating look at intelligence in an amazing range of relatively large-brained, social animals, from apes and whales to much less expected animals: bats, hyenas, and starlings, as well as elephants. It’s highly recommended, too.

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