Last year, researchers at the National Zoo gave a seven-year-old elephant Kandula a new kind of problem: how to get at the delicious fruit that was suspended up in the air, too high for the animal to reach? Despite being considered quite intelligent in the zoology community, elephants had never displayed the particular cognitive skill known as insight. But, as revealed in a paper published August 18, Kandula made elephant history. “He moved this big plastic cube over, he stood on it, and reached up to the food,” says the Zoo’s associate director of animal care Don Moore, who is a member of the research team.
Kandula didn’t stop there. “He then used a tire, so he generalized the cube idea to a tire,” Moore says. When the researchers gave the elephant a set of butcher blocks, “Kandula took those and stacked them up and made himself higher so he could reach the food. They even hid things, and Kandula went around and looked around for them and created something to stand on,” says Moore.
In the cognitive sciences, insight is regarded as a particular type of mental skill–the ability to create new solutions to problems at hand. Moore says, “It’s kind of like a human working on a puzzle, and starting at a bunch of puzzle pieces for a while, and then saying, ‘oh, there’s the one that’s the right shape.’” Insight is distinct from trial-and-error learning, since it requires conceptualizing the problem and making a mental leap to arrive at a solution. It has been encountered in a range of animal species, including chimpanzees, but had never been previously shown in elephants.
Moore says that part of the reason was experimental design. Previous experiments had expected elephants to pick up tools using their trunks to solve problems. Preston Foerder, lead author of the study, “had his own ‘ah-hah’ moment,” says Moore. “He says, ‘This is how everybody’s tried to show tool use and insightful behavior in elephants, and no wonder they didn’t get very far, because look at the elephant’s trunk.’” Because the trunk is a highly sensitive scent and touch receptor, in addition to a grasping tool, these experiments were restricting use of the elephants’ most sophisticated piece of equipment.
It also took a special kind of elephant. When this experiment was performed with the two older resident elephants at the zoo, neither one moved the plastic tubs around or showed insight in solving the problem. Although it’s far from certain, part of the reason why Kandula succeeded where others failed may be his youth. “We think that young animals like Kandula are a little more behaviorally flexible,” says Moore. “Maybe they’re a little more curious than most adults that are set in their ways, or maybe they’ve got more energy.”
Over the past several years, the research team has been seeking to demonstrate in elephants the whole suite of cognitive skills that have been shown in chimpanzees and other intelligent creatures. This week, an elephant mirror has been installed in the zoo, so researchers can conduct self-recognition experiments with the local population. Moore says, “Because Smithsonian’s National Zoo is a living lab, it’s the perfect place to try some of these trials.”
If visitors want to see Kandula and the others in action, elephant demonstrations are hosted daily between 11 and 11:30. These demonstrations occur in the elephant outpost, the elephant trail, and the newly constructed habitat area.
Ultimately, Moore says, Kandula’s impressive feat can be chalked up to two things: smarts and hunger. “He’s highly motivated to eat anything,” he says. “And I’ve got to say, I’ve worked with elephants for over 20 years, and even for smart elephants, he is one smart elephant.”