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Asian Elephant Kandula

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ighly social and clever and cooperative with tools, elephants are often near the top of the brainiest creatures list. Now, scientists have added a new talent to elephants' mental repertoire: The ability to solve a problem using insight--that aha! moment when your internal light bulb switches on and you figure out the solution to a puzzle. Previously, only a limited number of species, including certain primates, crows, and parrots were known to have this ability.

Got it! Asian elephant Kandula shows that he knows how to use a cube to reach a treat hanging overhead.

Credit: Foerder/Reiss CUNY

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Elephants had failed other tests for insightful problem solving because they were asked to use their trunks as we do our hands, says Preston Foerder, the lead author of the new study and a graduate student in comparative psychology at the City University of New York. For example, Foerder first tested whether three Asian elephants (two females and one male) at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., would use sticks placed just outside their enclosure to retrieve food that was out of reach of their trunks. "They didn't have any trouble getting or using the sticks," Foerder says. "They hit them on walls and toys; one even stuck her stick into the opening of her cage door," as if using a crowbar, "but they never used any of these methods to try to get food."

That's when Foerder had an aha! moment of his own. Elephants don't use sticks to get food because they must hold the stick with their trunk, which, despite being able to grasp things, is really an appendage for smelling and eating. When an elephant is asked to hold a stick with its trunk to get food, the trunk loses its primary olfactory function, which is also needed to locate food. "It would be like having an eye in the palm of your hand," Foerder says, "and then being asked to hold a tool and find food. You wouldn't be able to do it."

So instead of asking the elephants to use sticks to reach the food, Foerder and colleagues provided the same three elephants with sturdy, movable objects--a plastic cube and an aluminum tub--that could support their two front feet. All three had been trained to stand on the tub (but not to get food while doing so), and the two females had been trained to push large objects.



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