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Elephants cooperate as well as chimps

A new study proves that elephants understand how sometimes two is better than one. Working with Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, researchers reconstructed a classic cooperation test that was originally developed for chimpanzees. Subjects must pull on a rope to receive a reward, such as food, however—and here’s the crux—the treat is only released if two subjects cooperate by pulling on two different ropes simultaneously. The paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that elephants were as capable of cooperation as chimpanzees.

“Elephants are widely assumed to be among the most cognitively advanced animals, even though systematic evidence is lacking. This void in knowledge is mainly due to the danger and difficulty of submitting the largest land animal to behavioral experiments,” the paper’s authors write. However, working with elephants linked to mahouts allowed the researchers to reproduce the experiment in a controlled setting.

Once researchers found that elephants were capable of learning to cooperate to receive a award, they complicated the experiment. One elephant from the pair would be released into the experiment later than the other. According to the study, the elephant released first quickly learned to wait for their partner before pulling on the rope.

“The success of the elephants in longer delay trials increased significantly after the first test day, suggesting they quickly learned the waiting contingency of the task regardless of the length of waiting time,” the authors write.

The researchers, however, caution that it is still difficult to ascertain just how well the elephants understood the need for cooperation to retrieve the award, rather than simply learning the rules to the experiment.

“The least we can conclude is that the elephants demonstrated cooperative behavior in this experiment with attention to their partner’s presence and actions, thus showing a well-developed propensity toward partner-oriented, deliberate cooperation. These results put elephants, at least in terms of how quickly they learn the critical contingencies of cooperation, on a par with apes.”

Cooperation is not only a skill used by animals generally regarded as among the most intelligent, such as chimps and elephant. A recent study showed that hyenas, which are highly social carnivores, are even quicker to cooperate than chimpanzees. However, the study was inconclusive regarding the hyenas’ ability to comprehend that their partners’ cooperation was necessary to retrieve the award.

Asian elephants are currently classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. Conservationists believe the global population has been cut in half in three elephant generations largely due to habitat loss and poaching.

CITATION: Joshua M. Plotnik, Richard Lair, Wirot Suphachoksahakun, and Frans B. M. de Waal. “Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task”. PNAS.

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