Clever wild elephants show off their puzzle-solving skills in new video

NEW YORK — Nothing stands in the way of these elephants and their food! Despite what your IQ test tells you, intelligence can present itself in many ways. For animals who can’t sit for hours answering questions, biologists look for other signs of intelligence, like creativity and problem-solving skills. Now, a new video captures how these clever beasts handle complex tasks.

Wild Asian elephants, also known as bull elephants, are the latest intelligent animal to grab researchers’ attention. In a new study, bull elephants showed the capability of solving complex puzzles — like unlocking a storage box full of food.

“This is the first research study to show that individual wild elephants have different willingness and abilities to problem solve in order to get food,” says the study’s lead author, Sarah Jacobson, a psychology doctoral candidate studying animal cognition at the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College, in a media release.

“This is important knowledge, because how animals think and innovate may influence their ability to survive in environments that are rapidly changing due to human presence.”

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The six-month study took place at the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Using motion-activated cameras, they observed 77 wild Asian elephants and their interactions with a puzzle box that stood in the way of one of their favorite foods, the jackfruit. This fruit has a strong aroma that is a mix between fruity and musty.

The puzzle box contained three compartments and the elephant would need to interact with one of them. Depending on the choice, the elephant would need to either pull a chain, push a door, or slide the door open to the right to access their fruity reward. To figure out how to open a compartment, they would need time to inspect the box and practice attempts to open it.

Eventually all 44 elephants began to interact with the puzzle box, but it was the way they did it that was most interesting to researchers. Elephants who spent more time engaged with the box and continuously trying to open it were the most successful in accessing the jackfruit.

There were a total of 11 elephants who figured out how to open one compartment. Another eight opened two compartments of the box. Lastly, there were five elephants who stood out as the most innovative, being able to unlock all three compartments.

“Conflict involving humans and elephants is increasing due to loss of natural habitat and agricultural encroachment into what is left of it,” says the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Joshua Plotnik, a psychology professor with the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College.

“Investigating innovation and problem solving in elephants can inform our understanding of wild elephant cognitive flexibility and its potential impact on conservation management and human-elephant conflict mitigation.”

The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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