Elephants—the word conjures up pleasant childhood memories of circuses and zoos, playful antics with their agile trunks, gentle giants whose memory is legendary. And . . . team players?
In recent experiments, elephants have shown an amazing capacity to recognize when cooperation is essential to reach a common goal. And then, as a team, they quickly learn how to get the job done.
Elephants have shown an amazing capacity to recognize when cooperation is essential to reach a common goal.
The experiments, originally designed for chimpanzees, were conducted on Asian elephants at an elephant conservation center in Thailand. A table holding a tasty snack was placed in a separate enclosure from the elephants. A rope was then attached to the table. By pulling on the rope, a single elephant could drag the table close enough to his pen to claim the treat.
But then the researchers changed the setup. They wove the rope through loops around the table—like a belt through belt loops—then dropped both ends of the rope in the adjoining elephant enclosure, attached to nothing. Now if a single elephant dragged only one end of the rope, the rope would move freely through the loops, but the table wouldn’t budge.
Teamwork was needed. Two elephants dragging both ends of the rope could pull the table toward them, but neither could do it alone. Each elephant adapted quickly to this need, even waiting patiently for the second elephant to enter the pen before they began to pull.
Overall, the elephants performed as well as chimps, and they learned more quickly than chimps to wait for a second helper. These extraordinary findings confirm what scientists have long believed: that elephants are among the most intelligent and socially adaptable animals on the planet.
Studying wild elephants presents certain difficulties—what researcher, however dedicated, wants to be trampled?—so the Thai experiments have provided an important window to understanding the elephants’ gifts for learning.
The amazing teamwork and intelligence of these remarkable creatures also give us a glimpse of their Creator. He has not restricted special abilities to a lucky few at the top of some imaginary evolutionary chain. Instead He has distributed amazing abilities freely among all His creatures, each according to its need to survive and adapt in a complex and changing world—whether dancing bees or nesting birds, chattering chimps or lumbering elephants.