Super-Sized Teamwork

on March 12, 2011

BBC News: “Elephants Know How to Co-operateElephants’ ability to intentionally cooperate has boosted them into an “elite group” of animals, BBC News reports.

Scientists watching by video have observed elephants “understanding” when they need to cooperate to accomplish a mutual goal. The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used an device initially designed for chimpanzees to conduct the research.

In the experiment, elephants were separately taught to pull a rope in order to bring a platform—and food—within reach. Next, the team modified the apparatus in such a way that a single elephant pulling on a rope would only pull the rope loose; the platform would not move. But two elephants working together to pull the same rope from opposite ends would succeed in moving the platform within range.

The key in knowing that the elephants “understood” cooperation was that they learned to wait for a partner rather than continuing to try the modified device alone.

It didn’t take the elephants long to figure out how to work together. “When we released one elephant before the other, they quickly learned to wait for their partner before they pulled the rope,” explained the university’s Joshua Plotnik. “We see them doing amazing things in the wild, but we can see from this that they’re definitely co-operating.” The key in knowing that the elephants “understood” cooperation was that they learned to wait for a partner rather than continuing to try the modified device alone.

Humorously, the youngest elephant in the study learned that it didn’t have to pull on the rope to still get the treat. Simply putting her foot on the rope to hold it in place was enough, and the other elephant did all the work! “[A]mazingly complex behaviours—culture, tool use, social interaction—we see all of this in the animal kingdom,” Plotnik added.

And despite the attention chimps receive for their mental skills, the elephant teams learned to wait for one another more quickly than the chimps had. This is another reminder that although our simian friends are certainly smart, God created many other intelligent members of the animal kingdom. (To read more about elephant intelligence, see the November 27, 2010, News to Note and the links therein.)

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