Anantara Blogs Elephant Tails

If it were obvious it would be, well, obvious (& anyway, what’s wrong with scientifically proving what we all think we know?)

By John Roberts
3 January 2014 04:01:00

I feel a bit like the geeky kid at school (perhaps because I WAS the geeky kid at school) who works hard on a science presentation or on a costume, something important and that has taken all his heart, only to be mocked, laughed at & booed by the self proclaimed (&, well, I guess actually) cool kids when we get up there on stage to soak up the expected applause (& secretly yearned for acceptance by the cool gang).

But before I self destruct before your eyes, going down a self torturing list of ill-thought-out, (too) hard worked upon stunts-to-impress that turned into embarrassing moments I’ll get to the job in hand - writing about elephants.

We had our own proudest moment of the year so far on the 1st of January, we finally made the big time: Phuki, our long suffering (thanks to a mystery car or logging accident in his distant past) tusker made the front page of National Geographic’s website and, for those of us who live in an information age, more impressively, their Facebook feed.

How did we get there?  Thanks to our partners in crime Think Elephants International’s study that has showed that elephants use their sense of smell as one of their primary senses when solving problems.

But instead of taking the computers down to show the big fella his moment of glory we had to keep it away from him; for when we scrolled down to the comments section for the ‘cool kids’ were laughing - only one or two people thanking TEI & Phuki for increasing our understanding of the species and what drives them, most people seemed to think they already knew this and that the research had therefore been pointless.

I’ve argued before (though not about our own work) that scientifically proving the seemingly obvious is worth doing because, when I look around and I see the major issues facing elephants today - poaching, human elephant conflict and, in captivity, welfare - I don’t see any of the approaches EXCEPT those backed by scientific research being overly effective and those based on ‘acting on the obvious’ being sometimes quite damaging (in the HEC field the old “cull the old” practices, current ‘drives’ or relocations of single animals, in the welfare field the mahouts' "she's not trying to escape so she must be happy" based attitudes).

If we’re going to ask scientists to help us with our practical problems we need to provide them with the tools to design their grand experiments in helping elephants…

 ….and scientists’ tools (aside from over developed brains) are carefully documented proven method and the scientific literature.

What do you think happens when a scientist walks into the field and wants to know what an elephant’s primary sense in a particular situation may be? - well let’s just say it is incredibly difficult to ask detailed questions of wild (particularly Asian as they live in thick jungle so, even ten yards away, you can’t see what they are doing in detail) elephants.  Until now the scientist would have just had to guess, thanks to this study they can do a literature search and start building their experimental Human Elephant Conflict mitigation tool from one rung up the ladder.

It is our duty as caretakers of captive elephants to help the wild herds and this is one way in which we can do it.  That, in itself, is defence enough for us to continue sponsoring the work and continue being the geeky kids on the block - we’re not working on our gut and our emotion, we’re looking for cold hard facts, sharing and applying them - who knows it might even help us look after our eles better too?  If nothing else they got a lot of sunflower seeds and enrichment when taking part in the experiment.

Now, having presented ourselves as stone cold scientists I’m going to get, well, bitchy….

…most of the ‘cool kid’ comments revolved around the theme of “I could have told you that”, “why didn’t you ask the mahouts? - they’d have told you”, well, of course, unlike scientists, cool kids don’t read scientific papers (that takes time) before commenting, they don’t do literature reviews (&, to be honest, now I’m no longer geeky (now I’m cool!), I don’t either, but I do help sponsor not-overly-geeky Research Assistants who do and can break it down into words of one syllable for me) so they didn’t realise that we DID ask the mahouts first in previous intelligence experiments which the elephants ‘failed’, indeed generations of scientists have failed elephants in their intelligence tests because, we think (& this paper goes some way to showing) they have relied too much on what anecdote tells us how elephants’ intelligence works - which, inevitably, is coloured by what elephant keepers think or elephant commentators have thought.

Perhaps there’s no way to study how this underestimates elephant intelligence but what a literature review of Think Elephants work would tell you is that they started by using tests that had been designed for humans in the 1800’s then chimps in the 1930’s and when the eles didn’t do so well we asked the mahouts “how do you think elephants think?”, the mahouts, the people who work with these elephants we tested each & every day, live with them, have grown up with them, have had elephants as part of their culture for thousands of years, have elephants in the blood (you get the picture).

These most elephanty of elephant people told us their eles would ace hearing and eyesight based tests.

Of course, what that actually told us was that elephants are good at doing what they’re told to do in order to get a reward - not useful if we’re trying to test how good elephants are at solving problems and completely irrelevant if the underlying motive of the work is to help protect wild elephants.

Basically what the “could have told you that’s” could have told us is how trainable elephants can be and, well, we could have told them that - what we’re trying to find out is how much of what we think we see is training, how much is just what we think we want to see and how much is individual elephant brain power, how much is actual reasoning.

Going back to human elephant conflict, so far we (the human race) have based the majority of our response to Human Elephant Conflict on the trainability of elephants - if elephants learn that there will be punishment, in the form of fear and pain, for coming out of their protected areas they can be trained to stay in the protected areas.

Well, that hasn’t been successful in the long term.  In fact on the (mild) pain side, in many places the eles haven’t trained themselves to avoid electric fences but they’ve used quite remarkable reasoning to learn to disable the fence, in places where the fear and pain consists of angry locals throwing fire & lead they continue to come night after night despite the very nasty consequences.

Hopefully we can move on, take what we have learned here (& elsewhere where geeks have thicker skins than me) and help elephant authorities and scientists develop better techniques.

Hopefully avoiding the fear and pain bit altogether for both our species.

But ‘cool kids’ dwell on this, perhaps I’m oversensitive (pachyderm, of course, implying a degree of skin thickness), but Phuki still doesn’t know he’s been a Nat Geo electronic cover boy - please think twice before leaving a glib comment on a website - scientists don’t get to publish peer reviewed papers without doing some background reading and elephants don’t get moments of global fame very often.

Here he is again (comments closed):

Elephants Use Their Trunks to Ace Intelligence Tests

Smells, and not sounds, seem to be the key to pachyderm cognition.

DCIM\100GOPROElephants use their trunks to both touch and smell novel objects, including cameras, present in their environment

Elephants use their trunks to both touch and smell novel objects, including cameras, present in their environment.


Karl Gruber

for National Geographic


Say it ain't so, Dumbo. Elephants rely on their trunks and not those big ol' ears to find their way to food and likely to solve other puzzles, report scientists. (See: "Elephants at Risk.")

Elephants are renowned for their acute senses of hearing and smell, both of which play central roles in their everyday life. But until now, it was not known how important these senses were for basic, everyday tasks. (See: "Elephant Photo Gallery.")

"This is one of the first times, to our knowledge, that elephants were shown to use olfaction [smell] in a basic intelligence test," said Joshua Plotnik, an animal behavior scientist from the University of Cambridge, U.K., who led the study, recently published in the journal Animal Behavior.

The results of the study offer insights into how elephants think and could be used to figure out ways they might be dissuaded from raiding farmers' food, suggest the study authors. The authors also suggest that scientists may underestimate the smarts of pachyderms (and other animals) by relying too much on intelligence tests tied to sights or sounds, instead of smells.

Food IQ Test

In the study, seven Asian elephants first had to choose between two buckets that were potential sources of food (one bucket had food and one didn't), a standard "location test" of animal smarts in monkeys, birds, dogs, and other creatures.

The elephants were cued with a sound, the shaking of a closed bucket to reveal whether it contained sunflower seeds. In this first test, the elephants' odds of picking the full bucket were no better than chance.

In the second part of the study, however, the elephants were allowed to smell one of two buckets, either an empty one or one that smelled of food. The elephants had to choose between the bucket they had smelled and a new, mystery bucket. Elephants that were first exposed to an empty bucket always rejected this bucket and selected the "mystery" bucket instead.

This suggests that elephants are using smell as part of their decision-making process. They remember that the first bucket did not smell of food and choose the other option.

Smell Surprise

The results are surprising, say the researchers, because elephants are gifted when it comes to acoustic communication, so it is not hard to imagine that, if needed, they could use sound to find food. (See video: "Elephants Communicate While at Play.")

"Although elephants probably do not use sound to find food [in the wild], we did think that the elephants would be able to find the food in a task where only auditory cues were provided," says Plotnik.

The findings have important implications on many levels. For instance, it advances our understanding of how these animals interact with their environment.

"Our research suggests that their sense of smell may play a more important role in their decision-making process than it does for other species, and that this may have important implications for the design of future studies of their intelligence," says Plotnik.

It also could provide valuable tips for avoiding human-elephant conflicts. Plotnik explains, "If we know how elephants find crops to raid, perhaps we can find ways—using olfactory deterrents, for instance—to stop them before they raid."

The study results could be used to help scientists design more accurate animal-behavior experiments, on elephants and other species, said experts not involved with the study.

"For too long, we have tested all sorts of animals on stimuli that we, humans, find most salient," explains primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta. "We thus stack the deck against animals that differ from ourselves, and sometimes conclude from negative results that they are dumber than us."

This means that future studies of animal behavior ought to focus more on discovering each animal's special abilities before anything else.

"[This study] shows just how primate-centric some of our cognitive tests really are," adds Yale evolutionary psychologist Laurie Santos. "If we really want to understand elephant cognition, we need to start thinking outside the visual-auditory box."

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