Elephants’ body awareness another sign of their intelligence: New study

As further evidence of the intelligence of elephants, this novel study examined whether elephants can recognize their bodies as obstacles to success in a problem-solving task.  The bottom-line: Yes, indeed they can.


Elephants’ ‘Body Awareness’ Adds to Increasing Evidence of Their Intelligence

Asian elephants are able to recognize their bodies as obstacles to success in problem-solving, further strengthening evidence of their intelligence and self-awareness, according to a new study.

Self-awareness in both animals and young children is usually tested using the ‘mirror self-recognition test’ to see if they understand that the reflection in front of them is actually their own. Only a few species have so far shown themselves capable of self-recognition — great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants. It is thought to be linked to more complex forms of perspective taking and empathy…

One potential complement to the mirror test as a measure of self-understanding may be a test of ‘body-awareness’. This test looks at how individuals may recognize their bodies as obstacles to success in a problem-solving task. Such a task could demonstrate an individual’s understanding of its body in relation to its physical environment, which may be easier to define than the distinction between oneself and another demonstrated through success at the mirror test.

To test for body-awareness in Asian elephants, Dr Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, visiting assistant professor of psychology at Hunter College, City University of New York and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, devised a new test of self-awareness together with his colleague Rachel Dale…

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The Purpose of the Study

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but we still need more empirical, scientific evidence to support this belief. We know, for example, that they are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates. We wanted to see if they also show ‘body-awareness’.”  -Rachel Dale, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna

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The Test

The new test was adapted from one in which children were asked to push a shopping trolley, but the trolley was attached to a mat on which they were standing.

In the elephant version of the test, Plotnik and Dale attached a stick to a rubber mat using a rope; the elephants were then required to walk onto the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to an experimenter standing in front of them. The researchers wanted to investigate whether elephants understood the role of their bodies as potential obstacles to success in the task by observing how and when the animals removed themselves from the mat in order to exchange the stick…

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The Results

“The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task. In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.

“This implies that elephants may be capable of recognizing themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”  -Dr. Josh Plotnik

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The Value of the Study

“The more we can understand about elephants’ behavior, the more we can understand what their needs are, how they think and the strains they face in their social relationships.  This will help us if we are going to try to come up with viable long term solutions to the problems that these animals face in the wild, especially those that bring them into regular conflict with humans.”

-Dr. Josh Plotnik


Journal Reference:  Dale, R, and Plotnik, JM. Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Scientific Reports, 12 April 2017

DOI: 10.1038/srep46309