BERLIN, Germany — Turns out you don’t need opposable thumbs to do things like peel a banana! Pang Pha, an Asian elephant at the Berlin Zoo is making headlines for her unique way of peeling back bananas. Rather than imitating humans, she has devised an ingenious method of getting her favorite treat — without the pesky peel.
Pang Pha first breaks the banana before shaking it out and collecting the pulp with her trunk, leaving behind the thick peel. This unorthodox method may have come from watching her caretakers peel bananas. If so, it shows yet another example to an elephant’s intelligence and manipulative abilities.
“We discovered a very unique behavior,” says Michael Brecht, a researcher at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin’s Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, in a media release. “What makes Pang Pha’s banana peeling so unique is a combination of factors—skillfulness, speed, individuality, and the putatively human origin—rather than a single behavioral element.”
No mushy bananas, please
Just like how humans have their own preference on which banana they want to peel and eat, so does Pang Pha. She enjoys green or yellow bananas just like her fellow elephants while rejecting brown, overripe ones. Though the real apple (or should we say banana) of her eye are the yellows spotted with brown. The study authors found it’s those bananas that are the ones she chooses to peel and eat.
“It was only when we understood that she peels only yellow-brown bananas that our project took off,” Brecht explains.
Banana peeling is uncommon among elephants and Pang Pha is the only one who seems to do it compared to her peers. There is no explanation behind Pang Pha’s bizarre behavior, though it may have to do with her upbringing. The authors note that the elephant was raised by human caretakers in the Berlin Zoo. While she was never taught how to peel bananas, she grew up eating them.
Observational learning from humans seems to have driven this new skill, the authors say. Indeed, other research on the cognition of elephants finds that they can understand human pointing gestures and categorize people into ethnic groups. However, this is the first scientists have heard about observational learning helping elephants build a complex skill such as banana peeling.
“Elephants have truly remarkable trunk skills and that their behavior is shaped by experience,” says Brecht.
While Pang Pha learned banana peeling by herself, the researchers wondered if these habits are normally passed on through generations. The next phase of research involves looking at lineages and seeing how complex behaviors such as banana peeling and tool use are taught to others.
The study is published in the journal Current Biology.