Via ScienceNOW, 8/18/11
Highly social and clever and cooperative with tools, elephants are often near the top of the brainiest creatures list. Now, scientists have added a new talent to elephants’ mental repertoire: The ability to solve a problem using insight—that aha! moment when your internal light bulb switches on and you figure out the solution to a puzzle. Previously, only a limited number of species, including certain primates, crows, and parrots were known to have this ability.
Previous attempts to test the ability of elephants to use insight for problem solving have failed, apparently because they presumed that elephants would use their trunks to manipulate objects. However, since the trunk is primarily used for smelling, it seems that elephants won’t use it for manipulation in the process of trying to obtain food.
In a new experiment, elephants were provided with objects they could stand on with their front feet in order to reach food that was otherwise out of reach. One elephant, out of three tested, was finally able after six failed sessions, to solve the problem by moving a sturdy plastic cube into position beneath the food in order to succeed in reaching it.
Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023251)