Game On!

Problem solving is the fun thing for psychologists to put their subjects through, whether human or animal. Fun for the subjects may be another matter. With animal subjects, the problem is usually centered around food that is tantalizingly unavailable. The trick is for the animal to work out how to get it.

We’ve seen lots of studies with apes, monkeys and even crows and parrots. Recently, there was a study in cooperation with elephants who had to work out how to work together to get something to eat. To me, that seemed to indicate quite insightful problem solving. Foerder et al of City U working at the Smithsonian National Zoo, had doubts about the ability of elephants to have a “light-bulb moment” though (1).

Three Asian elephants were tested by hanging some delicious fruit a foot or so too high for them to reach. They were all tested individually so there was no opportunity for any cooperative cheating. The contestants were a 61-year old female, a 33-year old female and a mere youngster of a male at 7-years old.

The pen had odd toys such as a tractor tire, a large ball and a plastic cube for kicking around, but also craftily placed in the pen was an aluminum stand that was used for their medicals when they had to stand on it.

The old girls didn’t play. They came, they saw fruit and then shrugged their elephantine shoulders and said, in elephant, “Whatever!” They were then eliminated from further rounds.

 Young Kandula (or should it be Kan-du-lad) was up for it and rolled his cube under the fruit so he could stand on it and get his treat.

Of course no psychologist well-trained in the art of teasing would leave it at that. The next thing they did was to hide his cube, so he used the tire. When that wasn’t available, he used his ball albeit requiring more skill to balance. There being no limit to man’s ingenuity, the fruit was hung higher and our poor young friend had to resort to stacking stuff.

The researchers concluded that elephants can be insightful problem solvers. Personally, I would like to know what the old girls thought about the whole thing. They seemed to recognize a game for suckers immediately and refused to play, while young Kandula was laying his neuronal capacity bare for the pleasure and delight of the audience. So maybe the wise old girls were showing more insight than the researcher gave them credit for.


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