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Just like people, some elephants might have more of a knack for puzzles than others, new research this week suggests. The study of wild Asian elephants at an animal sanctuary found that only some were willing and able to solve a puzzle box that offered food as a reward, and even fewer cracked all three types of puzzles available.
Elephants have become well-known for their intelligence and complex social lives. Some researchers have even made the case that these qualities are enough for elephants to be considered self-domesticated—a characteristic thought to only be seen in humans and bonobos. According to lead study author Sarah Jacobson, a psychology doctoral candidate studying animal cognition at the CUNY Graduate Center and Hunter College, there’s still a lot we don’t know about elephant intelligence, including how it can vary between individuals.
To better understand this variability, Jacobson worked with other researchers to study wild Asian elephants living at the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand for six months. The team installed boxes containing jackfruit, an easily sniffed-out and commonly loved food for elephants, throughout the sanctuary. The boxes had three compartments, each of which had to be opened in a different way to access their respective treat. Then they used cameras to see if and how the elephants would figure out how to solve the puzzles.
77 elephants were observed to approach the boxes during the study period, with 44 deciding to interact with the box the first time they saw it. Ultimately, 11 elephants managed to solve at least one of the puzzles containing jackfruit; eight solved two of the puzzles; and five solved all three.
The team’s findings were published earlier this month in the journal Animal Behavior. And one of the most clever elephants, a male bull dubbed M028, can be seen in this YouTube video opening all three compartments.
“This is the first research study to show that individual wild elephants have different willingness and abilities to problem solve in order to get food,” said Jacobson in a statement from the CUNY Graduate Center.
The results also appear to show that innovation in elephants is influenced by several factors, much as it is in humans. The elephants that solved the most puzzles, for instance, tended to make repeated trips to the boxes and were generally more persistent.
Jacobson argues that studying innovation in elephants and other animals more closely might allow us to find ways to ensure their survival in places affected by human activity.
“This is important knowledge because how animals think and innovate may influence their ability to survive in environments that are rapidly changing due to human presence,” she said.