'Body awareness' offers further proof of elephant intelligence

"The more we can understand about elephants' behavior, the more we can understand what their needs are," said researcher Josh Plotnik.
By Brooks Hays   |   April 12, 2017 at 12:44 PM
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April 12 (UPI) -- The intelligence of elephants continues to surprise and impress scientists. New research shows elephants have "body awareness," meaning they recognize their bodies as impediments in problem solving situations.

Scientists typically use the mirror test to measure self-awareness. Great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants are able to recognize themselves in the mirror. But some researchers argue the test is limiting and that body-awareness is a more meaningful and sophisticated form self-awareness.

Researchers devised a problem-solving task to measure a group of Asian elephants' body awareness. Elephants were first trained to pass a stick to an attendant. For the test, scientists attached a stick to a mat with a rope. The elephant was led onto the mat and asked to pass the stick. Standing on the mat prevented the task's completion. To solve the problem, the elephants had to remove themselves from the mat. A separate control test featured an unattached stick.

The elephants stepped off the mat to pass the stick 42 out of 48 times during the initial test, but only three times during the control test.

"This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound," Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, said in a news release. "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."

The findings, detailed in the journal Scientific Reports, suggest elephants more than recognize themselves in the mirror, they understand the relationship between their body and the world around them.

"This implies that elephants may be capable of recognizing themselves as separate from objects or their environment," Plotnik said. "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."

Plotnik hopes his research into elephant intelligence will lead to better strategies for mitigating conflicts between elephants and humans.

"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," he said. "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."

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