Gotcha! Elephant Caught Cheating

Call her lazy, call her a cheat, call her what you like, but she's one very clever elephant.

On this page, I've got three videos. Together, they document an elephant intelligence test, administered in Lampang, Thailand by a young, highly regarded graduate student, Joshua Plotnik of Emory University. The freeloading elephant, a five year old female, Neua Un, shows up in the last video, but we should do this step-by-step.

Let's start with this:

We are looking down on a table with delicious corn snacks on either end. To get to the food, two elephants have to simultaneously hold or pull on a rope. These elephants, Umpang and Kahwd, after a day's training have learned to cooperate, so the table slides forward and the elephants can reach through a barrier and eat. If only one elephant had pulled, the table wouldn't have moved. The rope would have just slid around the table with no effect at all. The elephants must cooperate simultaneously. They did.

OK, now comes the second video. In this one, Wanalee, a female, comes to the fence. Her partner, Jojo, a male, won't be released for another 29 seconds. Does she understand that it's useless to pull the rope on her own? Will she wait?

She does. Elephants, apparently, can learn to coordinate their behavior. Six pairs of elephants were tested 40 times over two days and every pair figured out how to do this, succeeding on at least eight of the last 10 trials. If they had to wait, they waited. When the rope on one side was out of reach, they turned away and walked off. Curiously, very few animals can do this. Chimps can. Bonobos can. The sophisticated part is the simultaneity. Everybody knows elephants are smart, but this is the first time anyone had designed an elephant experiment to show they are part of the "do it at the same time" club. "We're excited by the results," Plotnik told New Scientist Magazine. "Clearly elephants fit in the top echelon of animal intelligence."

But now comes the smartest elephant of all, if you admire a cheat.

In this next video five year old Neua Un saunters in and waits for her partner, Alina. Notice she doesn't grab the rope with her trunk to prepare to pull. No, she just hangs around for 20 seconds looking innocent, but if you look closely, first she places her right foot down on the rope, then she shifts, steps back, and puts her left foot down, holding it taut. Alina then comes in. Watch who does the work...

Alina tugs and tugs and Neua Un? She does nothing...(Well, at the very end, she does a pretend, theatrical 'grab,' but that's just for show.) Because Neua Un is standing on the rope, it stays taut and Alina, without meaning to, serves the meal.

Which just goes to show that elephants can not only learn to work together, here's one who figured out how to do something human males have been doing for years; she tricked her partner into becoming...a waitress. Elephant scholars everywhere must be impressed.


Joshua Plotnick's study, "Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task," has been described in New Scientist magazine and in Ed Yong's blog, "Not Exactly Rocket Science."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: