Thinking like elephants

By: Lisa Barrett, Research Assistant – Think Elephants International, Inc.
Photos: Elise Gilchrist (c) 2014, Think Elephants International, Inc.

Plotnik3Think Science. Think Education. Think Elephants. That’s our motto at Think Elephants International (TEI), a nonprofit based in northern Thailand.  Founded by Dr. Joshua Plotnik in 2010, TEI’s aim is to conserve wild Asian elephants in Thailand by integrating elephant intelligence research with conservation education programming. We “think elephants” both because we think of elephants when we consider ways to help improve their conservation status, and we also think like elephants in designing our research paradigms. We use scientific research to understand how elephants “see” their world and how we can most effectively save their world. Dr. Plotnik has shown that elephants are both able to pass the mirror self-recognition task (Plotnik et al. 2006) and that they can cooperate together to complete a novel problem (Plotnik et al. 2011). In addition to demonstrating the amazing cognitive abilities of this species, we are also passionate about research that can directly impact conservation techniques to mitigate human-elephant conflict.

2014 has already proven to be a prolific year for our studies in the physical intelligence of elephants. After discovering in 2013 that Asian elephants do not use visual pointing cues to locate food (Plotnik et al. 2013), we continued to investigate the senses Asian elephants use to navigate their world. Last month, we published a study demonstrating that Asian elephants can locate food in a bucket when given only olfactory cues, but not when given only auditory cues (Plotnik et al. 2014). This makes sense as elephants are herbivores and have no need to actively stalk their “prey.” What’s more, the elephants employed inferential reasoning: when allowed only to smell from an empty bucket, they could infer that the opposite bucket contained the food reward. This finding is especially exciting as it provides the first evidence of elephants using a mode of nonvisual sensory perception in a cognitive, physical task. And although much research has focused on how elephants use olfactory and auditory senses to communicate, little work has focused on how they use those senses to navigate their physical environments. This study also reminds us that it is critical to incorporate a species’ sensory strengths and behavioral ecology when designing experiments (and helping them in the wild).

Plotnik1Another point of excitement for TEI came with the recent publication of Dr. Plotnik’s PhD research on reassurance in Asian elephants (Plotnik and de Waal 2014). Just as humans and chimpanzees reassure their distressed friends, so do elephants, suggest Dr. Plotnik and Dr. Frans de Waal. The results of this study revealed that after an elephant experienced a negative stimulus, such as a passing helicopter or barking dog, uninvolved bystander elephants made significantly more unsolicited touches to the head and genitals of the distressed individual than in a control period (video footage). Such physical contact is a form of reassuring tactile communication between elephants.  Bystanders also vocalized soon after negative events in response to victims, and adopted the agitated behavior of the distressed individual. Furthermore, fellow bystanders congregated with one another and exhibited bystander-bystander physical contact following a victim’s distress. These unharmed elephants displayed erect tails, made several vocalizations, and even urinated or defecated in the presence of the originally distressed elephant, all physical signs of emotional distress.

The data from this study suggest that the behavior of the elephant bystanders was most likely in response to the distress of their friends, and not the negative stimulus itself. This suggests that such behavior could be interpreted as consolation, a behavior that has been shown in chimpanzees. The matching of a conspecific’s emotional state by a bystander elephant may even suggest that the reassuring behavior has some empathetic underpinnings. Future studies should be conducted on wild elephants to confirm if this behavior occurs in the wild.  Finally, further research may reveal whether such behavior represents another example of convergent cognitive evolution between elephants and chimpanzees.

Not only do we hope that these studies will help to inform conservationists, elephant researchers, and policy makers about Asian elephant behavior, but we also look forward to integrating these findings into our elephant behavior module of our education initiatives. By educating Thai children about the incredible cognitive abilities of Asian elephants and the unexpected similarities between human and elephant behavior, we hope to change the way future generations think about the conservation of Thai wildlife.


Check out some exciting coverage on this paper: National Geographic, The New York Times, and Scientific American.

Read about TEI’s olfaction paper in National Geographic.


3 thoughts on “Thinking like elephants

  1. Pingback: How does empathy help elephants? | Maximus

  2. Pingback: How does empathy help elephants? | Maximus

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