A group of University of Cambridge researchers took a classic cooperation paradigm commonly used on monkeys, adapted it, and applied it to elephants. Researchers gave the elephants a task to earn a food reward, but they could only be completed if two elephants cooperated by pulling a platform towards themselves using ropes. Without two elephants both pulling the ropes at the same time, neither would get rewarded with food. If just one elephant was released into the area with the ropes and platform, it understood pulling on just one rope would not move the platform, and would wait for another elephant to arrive before attempting to get the food. In fact, the elephants learned to wait for their partner more quickly than chimps did when they were tested using similar tasks years ago. (A young elephant figured out she could just step on the rope, because doing so acted as a counterweight to the other’s pulling, and made the loose rope tight against the platform so it could be moved close to them.)
Understanding elephant intelligence and social behavior may yield knowledge useful in reducing human to elephant conflict. Wild elephants living near agricultural fields are sometimes killed when they eat too many crops, or even are menacing towards humans. Infrequently they attack and even kill a human, which sometimes may be due to the elephant remembering their family member was killed by humans. As the researchers noted, elephants may be capable of grief, and have some understanding of death.
An elephant incident resembling grief was captured on video and demonstrates both elephant memory, self-awareness and empathy.
Related elephant studies have shown elephants are afraid of some ants, and that fear could be used to keep them away from crops, so they don’t cause damage (and invoke the wrath of farmers). Another elephant study found African elephants are afraid of bees, and avoid the hives. So it might be possible someday to strategically blend agriculture with bee hives to repel elephants also. (It should be said some humans are also afraid of bees, so placing them near crops might reduce human theft as well.)
These animal researchers are changing the way the world sees wild animals for the better. Their work can also fuel needed policy changes to improve relationships between animals and humans. Without their efforts some animals might not survive in the wild as less and less natural habitat is available.
Image Credit: _Mrs_B