Asian elephants demonstrate intelligence through self-awareness

Asian elephants can recognize their bodies as barriers to success in problem-solving, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports. The elephants’ behaviors demonstrate their intelligence and self-awareness.

Self-awareness indicates a recognition of the self that is also associated with empathy. Self-awareness suggests that one can differentiate the “self-entity” from the “other-entity” and illustrates the “ability to become the object of your own attention.”

The ability to acknowledge oneself as different from other individuals and objects is challenging to study in the animal kingdom due to the restrictions of testing for it in controlled environments. Prior to this study, only dolphins, great apes and magpies demonstrated that they were skilled at self- recognition.

As a whole, elephants are viewed as intelligent, friendly mammals even though the researchers’ knowledge of their physical and social lives is insufficient. Since a previous self-awareness assignment with captive Asian elephants in South Africa was a success, researchers predicted that Asian elephants would succeed in this experiment as well.

Researchers selected 12 female elephants from the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Rai, Thailand, varying from 4 to 40 years old. The study was conducted from November 2012 to March 2013 on the grounds of the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and the Four Seasons Tented Camp.

Elephant handlers looked after the animals. While the elephants experienced rigorous coaching for hotel guest excursions, such as riding, trekking and mahout training courses, they had no previous experience with self-awareness tasks.

Influenced by a new study done with children, researchers created a fresh body-awareness model for the elephants. In this challenge, Asian elephants were mandated to step onto a mat, hold a stick fastened to it by rope and then pass the stick forward to an experimenter. To succeed, the elephants had to realize that their body was an impediment and first clear their weight from the mat before trying to move the stick.

A rubber, gray mat was trimmed to measure 200 by 115 centimeters, and a rope was attached halfway along the stub of one short side. The rope was 100 centimeters long, but differed among elephants due to their mismatched body and trunk sizes. At the end of the rope, a stick was fastened and put parallel to the rubber mat. The tests were recorded on an SD card from a digital video camera.

Elephants were first introduced to this mat by walking in a straight line onto the mat. If they stayed on the mat for at least 10 seconds, they were then allowed to leave the mat in any direction. If an elephant left the mat before time was up, they were guided back onto the mat. This guidance continued until the elephants finished 10 trials. Their self-awareness would be tested by how and when the animals step off the mat in order to pass on the stick.

Dr. Joshua Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge, and his colleague Rachel Dale, a Ph.D. student at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, found that elephants removed themselves off the mat more frequently during the test than during the trials. Elephants removed their weight off the mat at an average of around 42 out of 48 times during the experiment.

All elephants succeeded at least once in removing their weight during the first session of the trials, with eight out of 12 elephants getting off the mat and transferring the stick on 11 of 12 test trials. In the stick-unattached control, the elephants removed themselves off the mat less frequently than in the trials, suggesting that the elephants realized that their bodies’ positions on the mat was a barrier to their achievement.

This additionally indicates that the elephants did not remove themselves off the mat in a control task similar to the trials because they were not required to do so and because they were informed about the link between their bodies’ position on the mat and success in the assignment.

Plotnik further added that there is a likelihood that the elephants did not enjoy the feeling of the mat being moved under their feet during the trials, so they might have stepped off the mat due to irritation instead of comprehension of the task.

Plotnik revealed that these studies are instrumental toward strengthening one’s understanding of the behavior and intelligence of animals because it can resolve human and elephant clashes in places like Thailand, where humans and elephants are fighting over land.