Elephants understand how cooperation works and recognize the circumstances in which they should work together for a common goal, according to a new study.
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"A lot of species in the animal kingdom cooperate," said Joshua Plotnik, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. "But most species probably don't really understand about how cooperation works, they don't have the cognition for it. They don't think about it."
Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta teamed up with the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand to see if the elephants can learn to cooperate with each other in pairs. The study included 12 Asian elephants.
The study began with researchers placing corn on a table that was far out of reach from the elephants. The table had one rope attached to it, and the rope was threaded around the table so a long strand was available on both sides.
If one elephant attempted to pull the table closer, the rope quickly pulled through the other side. If two elephants pulled the table closer using both sides of the rope, however, they could move the table close enough to get the corn. Soon after, the elephants recognized that they needed a partner to complete the task.
"You can see that the trunks pull almost in unison," Plotnik said. "It makes the table come towards them so they can reach in and grab the food."
The elephants understood that pulling the rope without a partner wouldn't earn them any reward. In one video, elephants Wanalee and Jojo both approach the apparatus, but when Wanalee takes hold of the rope and holds it in his trunk, he doesn't pull. He waits for Jojo to take hold of his side before attempting to pull.
"You see here that once Jojo arrives, Wanalee pulls with him," Plotnik said.
Some of the elephants waited up to 45 seconds before attempting to pull the table without a partner, which, according to Plotnik, is a long time.
"Elephants are always hungry," he said. "All day, all the time."
In another part of the study, researchers used the same apparatus but made it impossible for the elephants to retrieve the corn. Some of the elephants actually learned alternative strategies on their own, speaking volumes about the level of their intelligence.
Elephants are constantly interacting with each other, and cooperatively take care of their young and protect one another from predators.
"The more we can actually understand about how animals think and how intelligent they are and how they solve problems, the more likely we are to come up with successful solutions," he said.
Plotnik says they are one of the smartest species on the planet.
"Unfortunately, Dumbo is the wrong word," he said. "These guys aren't dumb at all, they're really smart."
The study is being published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.