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.
In August 2015, one of our frequently sighted females in Uda Walawe named Indika was seen suckling two calves of different ages on either sides of her. The younger male calf Indika was nursing was about three months old and merely skin and bones. He was obviously malnourished and weak. She already had a rounded and bulky belly suggesting another calf was on her way. This unusual behaviour of the elephants intrigued us so we dug deeper into our field notes.
It turned out he was not her calf – he had been born to  in June, 2015 and was the first calf we had witnessed her to have produced during our study. A few days after the birth she lost her interest in the new-born and may have stopped lactating. The calf’s body condition started gradually declining so our team informed the veterinary staff at the Elephant Transit Home. Continue reading →
A small family of elephants in Uda Walawe wanders upon a dead calf which does not belong to them. Yet they show great interest, touching and hovering over the body for hours, refusing to let any observers near until they finally decide to move off. Photos: UWERP
In the past week a paper on reassurance behavior in elephants by Plotnik et al. in PeerJ has been generating quite a bit of buzz. The study, which you can learn more about from the researchers themselves here, collected a series of observations on a group of captive elephants in Thailand documenting how they reacted when one of their companions was distressed. It showed that when some individuals were disturbed in some way and expressed their distress, other individuals approached them and interacted in ways (such as touching, vocalizing) that suggested that they might be trying to comfort or console their companion. Such behavior would indicate that elephants have the capacity for empathy, along with a handful of other species.
The title of this post is meant to work on at least two levels. First, we might wonder at a biological level – what is the function of the curious behavior elephants sometimes show toward others in distress? Why might it have evolved? Whom does it benefit? Second, we might wonder at a practical level – should the capacities of elephants endow them with additional conservation value? Should it matter on the ground? So today, the first ever World Wildlife Day, I’d like to examine these two sets of questions, which are very distinct. Continue reading →
By: Lisa Barrett, Research Assistant – Think Elephants International, Inc. Photos: Elise Gilchrist (c) 2014, Think Elephants International, Inc. www.thinkelephants.org
Think 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. Continue reading →
Koshik is a 12-year-old male Asian elephant housed at the Everland Zoo in South Korea. For some years he had been a local star that was the subject of some internet fame due to his uncanny ability to produce human-like sounds. Not only this, but they actually seemed to resemble Korean words.
In a new paper in the journal Current Biology by Angela Stoeger and colleagues, Koshik’s vocalizations were put to the test. Could he really produce words, as trainers claimed?
The researchers recorded Koshik’s special utterances and played them back to a panel of native Korean speakers who had never heard him before. These participants did not know who was producing the sounds or what they were supposed to mean. They were then asked to write down the words they heard. They found that Koshik’s call resembled five Korean words: ‘‘annyong’’ (hello), ‘‘anja’’ (sit down), ‘‘aniya’’ (no), ‘‘nuo’’ (lie down), and ‘‘choah’’ (good). He appeared to be very good at reproducing the vowels in each of the words, but the consonants were more problematic. “Choah” for instance was interpreted sometimes as “boah” (look) and “moa” (collect) by the human listeners.
The newborn calf stayed close to a subadult female, who was very attentive to her.
It was a rainy afternoon. I met Fat-tail with a group at the crest of the Teak waterhole. Amidst the heavy downpour, they were grazing and moving towards Old Mau-Ara Road which is located on the North-east side of the park. When we neared them, Fat-tail came over and stood right next to the jeep. She was watching us, but it was a friendly look. Fat-tail and Right-hole were part of one of the largest social units we had documented in the past five years – the Rs, named after the oldest female among them, Ragged Ear. This unit had quite a few adults in it, but the split up during wet seasons. Fat-tail and Right-hole were a pair that were nearly always seen together and that day was no exception, they were both together along with the calves.
Fat-tail with her juvenile calf.
After few minutes I saw a newborn female calf who was being nursed by a subadult female. Lacking milk, the teenager was unable to actually feed calf. The calf was very tiny, still having the red skin and eyes characteristic of newborns, though covered by lots of hair. It was very active and always moved under the belly of the subadult, though she was definitely too young to be the mother of the calf. I wondered who the mother was. Neither Right-hole nor Fat-tail could be the mother – Right-hole had her own small calf with her. Fat-tail had had a newborn calf, but sadly, it had died a few months ago though she still had her older calf. She couldn’t give birth to a new calf yet since its takes 22 moths for a pregnancy so the interval between calves is usually at least four to five years. I got very curious about who the newborn could belong to. Continue reading →