The floating object task is a puzzle that comparative cognition researchers present to animals (including humans) to study the evolution of cognitive abilities, like cause and effect understanding and the ability to use water as a tool. To solve the task and retrieve the floating reward inside, you must add water to a tube to raise the water level and reach the reward. Some primates, like orangutans have been able to solve the task by carrying water in their mouths from a drinker and spitting it into the tube to reach a peanut.
My colleague, Dr. Sarah Benson-Amram, and I presented this puzzle to elephants for the first time (Barrett & Benson-Amram, 2020). We wanted to see if elephants’ unique trunk morphology would make them well-equipped for the floating object task. Since they spray water for bathing, and hold water in their trunk as a vessel for bringing it to their mouth, we predicted that they would be up for the task. We collaborated with the National Zoo and the Oklahoma City Zoo to carry out this research. We used a tube filled about 1/3 of the way with water, baited with a floating marshmallow. As is often the case with animal research, things did not go as we expected.
Until the recent COVID-19 epidemic halted travel around the globe, the island of Sri Lanka thrived on tourism. A big part of the country’s GDP is attributed to tourism. According to Sri Lanka Tourism Development Association, 783,000 tourists visited Sri Lanka’s national parks in 2018, which is roughly 38% of the travelers who entered the country. The parks earned over 2 billion rupees (over $11 million USD) in entrance fees alone. Clearly, elephants have a huge economic value (more about this here).
We’ve temporarily halted field work due to the pandemic. So, we thought this was a good time to bring you some stories from our archives of field notes! In honor of Mother’s Day, here’s an incident that helped us appreciate just how little we understand about what goes on beneath the surface of an elephant’s mind. Happy Mother’s Day!
August 22 2012
Can you tell what’s going on in this video? Well, if you know the elephants individually, there’s quite an intriguing story behind it. Read on to see what’s happening, and see if you can follow the video…
Join us for An Evening With Elephants at EVE Encinitas on November 2nd, 5-7:30pm for a special in-person event to learn more!
A page from our original ID catalogue from 2005, with a female ID’d as  on top.
 in 2008.
When I was starting the project in 2005, learning to recognize individual elephants was tricky. Building the photo catalogue was laborious, we went through videos frame by frame trying to distinguish an ear flap here, a tiny hole there. But even then, there were a some who looked so unique that it was enough to see them once – they were difficult to forget. Continue reading →
The living elephants – Asian elephant, African forest elephant and African savannah elephant.
Guest post by Michael Pardo
Ask most people what sound an elephant makes and they are likely to think of a trumpet. In reality though, elephants produce an incredible variety of different vocalizations. The most common call is a deep, pulsating rumble, so low-pitched that human observers sometimes feel it more than hear it. Elephants also roar—powerful, bellowing sounds that carry across the landscape. And sometimes, they give combination calls, in which one or two rumbles and roars are stitched together with no pause for breath.
I visited Udawalawe in 2014 to work with the Udawalawe Elephant Research Project, and was especially fascinated by these combination calls. Combining meaningful units into sequences with an additional meaning is a key component of human language, but there are relatively few examples of this phenomenon in other species. Listening to the Udawalawe elephants, I was struck by the fact that they nearly always produced combination calls in the same order: a single roar followed by a single rumble. Why was this? Could it be analogous to grammatical rules in human language? Or could it be as simple as an anatomical constraint that made it difficult for the elephants to produce a rumble before a roar? Continue reading →
It was a perfectly framed shot of a young elephant breaking the electric fence, perhaps even looking a little gleefully smug about it. Still this was a relatively common incident, and while it was nice to catch at least one culprit in the act, the observation was hardly a breakthrough (pun intended). But as we watched on, it was what came next that was so beautifully, endearingly meaningful that we couldn’t help watching again, and again, and again. Continue reading →
A group of elephants visit the grasslands surrounding the Kabini Reservoir in Southern India. Photo: Kabini Elephant Project
India includes some of the largest populations of Asian elephants in the world: an estimated ~26 000 to 28 000 elephants distributed across four regions. Of the four regions, southern India includes the single largest population of Asian elephants in the world (~14 000) and elephants are distributed across the Western and Eastern Ghats.
I studied the ecology and behaviour of Asian elephants as part of an ongoing long-term project on elephants, the Kabini Elephant Project, which was started in March 2009 to study the social life of elephants. Continue reading →
Before we start, a disclaimer: there’s a lot of bad news out there. We’re not going to amplify it by reposting here. But we thought it would be nice to highlight interesting news every now and then. Things that give us hope (#ElephantOptimism) and/or make us think.
Here are a couple.
To bee (hive-fence) or not to bee (hive-fence)
Image: Bangkok Post
We recently published the results of a study done back in 2014 with Dr. Lucy King of the Elephants and Bees Project showing that Asian elephants are not very keen on bees (read the blog post here). But of course, plenty of people had heard about the earlier studies with African elephants and had already jumped to the final step – beehive fences as a means of deterring crop raiding. Continue reading →
We have the pleasure of watching elephants in broad daylight in precious few places like Udawalawe, where they are habituated enough to be placid and tolerant of onlookers. Indeed, one can get rather spoiled in this particular Park, because even the birds are unafraid and will happily sit and pose for your clumsy photograph from inches away. At times, certain exhibitionist pachyderms even appear to put on a show for the gawking crowds:
An elephant family rests under a tree in the hot midday heat. Situations like this were perfect for the playback experiments.
In October 2007 Lucy King and colleagues first made a splash by reporting that African elephants seemed to be rather put off by bees. I was still in Sri Lanka during my big “data collection year” as a graduate student, trying to figure out the social relationships among Asian elephants and recording vocalizations whenever I got a chance. Lucy’s first paper was a curiosity, but then three years later she followed it up with the even more intriguing finding that African elephants even produce alarm calls specific to bees. This got the attention of my advisor at Penn, Dorothy Cheney, who having expended considerable time thinking about such things as monkey alarm calls, dropped me a one-liner: “Have you seen this?” Continue reading →