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The Importance of Properly Setting Up a Study

Scientists have only recently proven (to themselves because really, have you seen the documentaries on elephant behavior in the wild?) that elephants are at least on par with chimps in terms of intelligence. It took them this long because the tests they were setting up didn't take into account how an elephant's senses work.


From the cable they dangled fruit-tipped bamboo branches of various lengths both within and without of Kandula's reach. After preparing the aerial snacks they retreated out of sight, turned on a camera and waited to see what the young elephant would do. It took several days for Kandula to achieve his initial insight, but after that he repeatedly positioned and stood on the cube to wrap his trunk around food wherever the scientists suspended it; he learned to do the same with a tractor tire; and he even figured out how to stack giant butcher blocks to extend his reach.

Other elephants had failed similar tests in the past. As it turns out, however, those earlier studies were not so much a failure of the elephant mind as the human one. Unlike people and chimpanzees, elephants rely far more on their exquisite senses of smell and touch than on their relatively poor vision, especially when it comes to food. Previously, researchers had offered elephants only sticks as potential tools to reach dangling or distant treats--a strategy at which chimps excel. But picking up a stick blunts an elephant's sense of smell and prevents the animal from feeling and manipulating the desired morsel with the tip of its dexterous trunk. Asking an elephant to reach for a piece of food with a stick is like asking a blindfolded man to locate and open a door with his ear.

Ignore the fact that it seems like they got my mother to operate the camera and focus on how awesome it is that the elephant got his stepping stool to reach the tall thing.

And more examples of awesome:

"When they are getting ready to do a group charge, for example, they all look to one another: 'Are we all together? Are we ready to do this?' When they succeed, they have an enormous celebration, trumpeting, rumbling, lifting their heads high, clanking tusks together, intertwining their trunks."

Cynthia Moss, director of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants and another preeminent elephant researcher, once saw a particularly amazing example of elephant cooperation. One day the young and audacious Ebony, daughter of a matriarch named Echo, bounded right into the midst of a clan that was not her own. As a show of dominance, that clan kidnapped Ebony, keeping her captive with their trunks and legs. After failing to retrieve Ebony on their own, Echo and her eldest daughters retreated. A few minutes later they returned with all the members of their extended family, charged into the clan of kidnappers and rescued Ebony.

At a Thai conservation center, they divided an outdoor elephant enclosure into two regions with a volleyball net. On one side stood pairs of Asian elephants. On the other side the researchers attached two bowls of corn to a table that slid back and forth on a frame of plastic pipes. They looped a hemp rope around the table so that when both ends of the rope were pulled simultaneously the table moved toward the elephants, pushing the food underneath the net. If a single elephant tried to pull the rope by him or herself, it would slip out and ruin any chance of getting the food. All the elephants quickly learned to cooperate and even to patiently wait for a partner if the scientists prevented both animals from reaching the rope at the same time. One mischievous young elephant outsmarted the rest. Instead of going through the hassle of tugging on one end of the rope, she simply stood on it and let her partner do all the hard work.

A lazy, but clever elephant!!

The article brings up the "how can we justify keeping such an intelligent animal in a zoo" question. I can see how the more intelligent the animal, the more painful the captivity must be. But really, how we can justify keeping any animals in zoos? Zoos aren't sanctuaries. A zoo's purpose is to make something available to the public that they would not otherwise see without trekking through some jungle or wilderness and they charge you for that favor. How would you feel if your entire life consisted of one room and one fenced outdoor area? And everyday, strangers came and stared at you, making noises and pointing? Possibly petting you?

I say we release the animals and pen up the people who buy poached animal products. They prolly deserve to be poked and prodded. Then we wouldn't need to worry about poachers because there'd be nobody to buy their stolen goods. And we wouldn't have all this hand-wringing when a giraffe gets fed to the lions (the lions would have been fed lettuce otherwise. clearly.) because they'd all be out in their natural habitat and the lion could give the giraffe a sporting chance at running away.

By min | February 28, 2014, 8:25 AM | Science