Elephant Makes a Stool–First Known Aha Moment for Species

By | August 22, 2011

In an apparent flash of insight, a young Asian elephant in a zoo turned a plastic cube into a stool–and a tool–a new study says.

That eureka moment is the first evidence that pachyderms can run problem-solving scenarios in their heads, then mentally map out an effective solution, and finally, put the plan into action, researchers say. …

During the study seven-year-old Kandula was eager to reach a cluster of fruit attached to a branch that was suspended from a wire, just out of reach. After some apparent thought, the young male rolled a large plastic cube under the branch and stepped up to snatch the treat with his trunk–a feat he repeated several times over multiple days with the cube and with a tractor tire.

The youngest elephant at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., Kandula had never before been seen moving an object and standing on it to obtain items, and he didn’t arrive at his solution by trial and error, said study co-author Diana Reiss, who studies animal intelligence in elephants and dolphins at Hunter College at City University in New York.

Only a few species–such as humans, crows, and chimpanzees–have demonstrated spontaneous insight, the ability to suddenly, mentally figure out the solution to a physical problem, Reiss said. …

Researchers gave Kandula various objects that could have been used to reach the fruit, including sticks that he could have grasped with his trunk to knock the snacks down.

That Kandula didn’t do this initially puzzled the scientists, until they realized that using sticks in this way would be unnatural for elephants.

Elephants are known to use sticks as tools–as back scratchers, for example–but not when foraging. That’s because the mammals rely heavily on the trunks’ sense of smell and touch when seeking out food. Holding anything in their trunks would prevent them from effectively feeling and sniffing out dinner, the researchers say.

“It’s as if your eyes were in the palm of your hand and I said, Pick up this tool and go get that thing. As soon as you did that, you’d lose your primary sense,” explained study co-author Preston Foerder of the City University of New York.

via Elephant Makes a Stool–First Known Aha Moment for Species.

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