National Zoo elephant has an ‘aha’ moment

August 18, 2011

Kandula is a regular elephant Einstein.

The youngest pachyderm at the National Zoo flashed a moment of insight when he rolled a cube under a tasty branch, stood on the cube and stretched his trunk to grab a treat.

Never before had scientists seen such an “aha!” moment in elephants, even though the animals recognize themselves in mirrors, drop logs on fences to get to food and even dig wells.

“We knew elephants were intelligent,” said Diana Reiss, who studies animal intelligence at Hunter College at the City University of New York. As smart as dolphins and chimpanzees in some regards. Yet all attempts to get elephants to suddenly solve a problem had failed.

Two years ago that changed, reveals an experiment published this month in the science journal PLoS One. One of Reiss’s graduate students, Preston Foerder, gave the zoo’s elephants sticks, which they banged around. But they failed to use the sticks to grab snacks placed outside their bars.

Foerder then had his own revelation. “They’re not inclined to hold something in their trunk to get food,” he said. “It blocks their sense of smell.”

So Foerder hung the bamboo and fruit just out of reach of each elephant, placing a cube or aluminum tub nearby. In the seventh session, Kandula “just suddenly did it,” Foerder said.

The next session, Kandula rolled the cube all over the joint, using it to reach a flower he wanted to sniff and to play with a toy hung from a tree. But his smarts had a limit: He couldn’t figure out how to stack three thick butcher blocks as a stool.

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