Mar 9

Elephants are able to understand when a task requires teamwork and can cooperate to retrieve a reward, according to a new study.

Photo of Asian elephant

The Asian elephant is under threat from hunting and habitat loss, and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN.

Elephant-sized experiment

Although elephants are widely assumed to be highly intelligent, the dangers and difficulties involved in testing such a large animal mean that experimental evidence is often lacking.

Close-up photo of Asian elephant

Elephants live in stable family groups and have often been seen helping calves or other family members in the wild.

The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a jumbo-sized version of apparatus usually used to test monkeys and apes. The experiment required two Asian elephants to pull together on ropes to bring a table of food within reach.

The elephants quickly learned to cooperate to get their reward, and would even wait for their partner before trying to pull on the rope, showing that they understood the need to work together.

Photo of African elephants at waterhole

African elephants are larger than their Asian cousins and are also highly intelligent. Elephants have long memories and may even mourn their dead.

One elephant even came up with an alternative strategy, putting her foot on the rope and waiting for her partner to do all the work of pulling on the other.

Highly intelligent species

These findings show that elephants are as capable of cooperation as apes, putting them in an “elite group” of intelligent and socially complex animals which includes chimpanzees, dolphins and some birds.

Photo of a juvenile chimpanzee

Other species shown to understand cooperation include apes such as chimpanzees.

Watch a video of the elephant experiment in the BBC report.

View stunning photos and videos of the Asian elephant on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

  • pigeon racing (March 9th, 2011 at 6:08 pm):

    Seeing how animals work together always fascinates me. I’ve observed similar organizational behavior with pigeon racing.

    pigeon racing