Elephants Can Lend a Helping Trunk

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Science  11 Mar 2011:
Vol. 331, Issue 6022, pp. 1248
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6022.1248-a

We humans readily understand when we need another person's help to solve a problem. That kind of cooperative skill is an indication of our higher social cognition, psychologists say, and it's rarely found in other species. But a new study, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that elephants, too, can easily see when a goal is only attainable with another elephant—and his or her trunk.

Elephants cooperate to move a sliding table.


To test elephants' cooperative skills, Joshua Plotnik, then a psychology graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta and now at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, used a sliding table bearing treats that could be moved only if two elephants pulled simultaneously on the ends of a single rope threaded through the table; otherwise, the rope would just come out. Twelve Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were grouped in pairs and taught the pulling task. In a test of whether they understood that they needed help, the animals waited for their partners, sometimes for as long as 45 seconds, before pulling their end of the rope. “People might not be surprised that chimpanzees can solve this task,” says Satoshi Hirata, a primatologist at the Great Ape Research Institute in Okayama, Japan, who invented this dual rope-pulling exam. “But it is more surprising, even for researchers, that elephants can do it, too. It shows that they are highly socially intelligent.”

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