Young elephant struck by idea

Insightful 7-year-old moves cube to snag fruity treat

Elephants may not be such dumbos after all when it comes to solving problems by sudden insight.

ANIMAL SMARTS A least one resident of Washington, D.C., has passed a test for insightful problem solving. A young elephant at the National Zoo figured out that he could stand on a cube to snag out-of-reach fruit. P. Foerder et al

A 7-year-old Asian elephant apparently had just such an “aha!” moment when he moved a cube to use as a step stool to reach dangling fruit, scientists report online August 18 in PLoS ONE.

Although it’s impossible to know what’s in an animal’s mind, this episode is the first demonstration of insightful problem solving in an elephant, proposes comparative psychologist and study coauthor Preston Foerder of the City University of New York.

Elephants do have some smarts, including excellent long-term memory and skill with tools. But the pachyderms haven’t done well on tests of a particular type of problem solving: getting a sudden flash of insight instead of finding solutions through trial and error.

Similar experiments have revealed possible insightful problem solving in such animals as chimps, orangutans, gibbons, baboons, parrots and members of the crow family, Foerder says. Elephants clearly solve problems in the wild, such as using fallen trees as bridges to safely cross electric fences protecting farmers’ crops. However, Foerder laments, “If you’re not there for the first time they do it, you don’t know if it was insight.” An elephant might have figured out the trick by trial and error or by watching other animals do it.

Foerder’s own tests for insight started with trials and errors. He worked with three Asian elephants at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. At first he offered fruit pieces on trays outside the bars of their enclosures. Elephants strained mightily to reach far-flung fruit trays but didn’t try to pull the food in with sticks provided by the scientists.

The elephants did pick up the sticks. “They would beat the wall; they would beat the floor; they would beat their toys,” Foerder says. They used them to scratch their backs. One elephant even angled the stick through cage bars as if trying to pry them apart. But reaching for the fruit — nope.

Then Foerder moved the test outdoors and suspended the fruit as if it were hanging from a tree. He added things for the animals to stand on, thinking that perhaps elephants wouldn’t be inclined to grasp food with a stick if it impaired their ability to sniff with their trunk. “That was my ‘aha’ moment,” Foerder says.

After six sessions of failing to reach the fruit, the youngest elephant, Kandula, went over to a cube left in his cage for him to play with and repositioned it to use it as a step up to the fruit. He’d been observed standing on objects before, but not moving them to improve his reach. He also expanded on this discovery, standing on a tire or a plastic ball. And he moved the cube to another part of the compound to reach mouthfuls of flowers on a tree overhanging the fence.

His mother, age 33 at the time of test, and their 61-year-old unrelated female neighbor never figured out how to reach the fruit. Earlier tests for elephant insight may not have had the right elephant-friendly choices at hand to detect insight, Foerder and his colleagues suggest.

If elephants can solve problems by insight, then maybe their brains are better at integrating information than they’ve been given credit for, says study coauthor Diana Reiss of Hunter College in New York. Elephants have been called savantlike, in recognition of their superb memories but lackluster performance in some other human-designed cognitive challenges.

The new demonstration of insight isn’t enough to change the basic view of savantlike elephant brains for Benjamin Hart of University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who has studied elephant behavior. He argues that the brain structure itself favors elephant-type memory and social empathy instead of more integrative processes.

The whole idea of trying to discern complex insight from watching behavior disturbs Sara Shettleworth of the University of Toronto, who studies animal cognition. “Even people who study human problem solving do not agree there is a special mechanism of insight,” she says. “Humans and other animals may all be using simpler processes.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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