Elephants have always been recognized as intelligent, but the spark of insight — the ability to suddenly arrive at the solution to a problem by running problem-solving scenarios in your head (as opposed to repeated attempts at trial and error) — is something that has never been observed experimentally in the brainy pachyderms.
But now, a young Asian elephant named Kandula at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. has been spied experiencing what researchers are calling an "aha" moment — what they say is the first experimental evidence that an elephant is capable of insightful problem solving.
The video up top shows Kandula's very first, insightful use of a cube as a tool to reach an otherwise unreachable branch. In the study, Kandula and other elephants were tested individually over the course of several days in a number of 20-minute sessions . In each of these sessions, researchers recorded each individual elephant as it was presented with a baited branch suspended just out of reach.
The researchers describe Kandula's "aha" moment in the latest issue of PLoS ONE:
Kandula...showed interest in obtaining unreachable branches as evidenced by sniffing and trunk-reaching behavior in all sessions...but failed to use sticks as tools to obtain the food. He moved the cube in two of the first six sessions (sessions 1 & 4), but never towards the food.
In session 7, Kandula had difficulty removing the first reachable branch from the cable. Four minutes into the session, he obtained the fruit but was unable to pull down the entire branch. He left the food location and returned to the area one minute later, rolled the cube from its original placement to the suspended food's location, stood on it with his front two feet and obtained the branch with his trunk.
This video shows how quickly Kandula remembered to use the cube in subsequent trials. His behavior is described in the PLoS Paper:
The next day, in session 8, approximately two minutes after the placement of the first unreachable branch, Kandula rolled the cube to the food area, stood on it, and obtained the food in the same manner as in the previous session...Beginning in session 9 all food was hung out of reach in all trials. Kandula used the cube in the same manner to obtain food in subsequent sessions. The location on the cable of the baited branches was changed for each trial in the sessions. Kandula readjusted the position of the cube accordingly.
Kandula is the youngest elephant at Washington, D.C.'s National Zoo, and the researchers who led the study claim Kandula had never seen an object used as a stool to obtain out-of-reach items.
According to Diana Reiss — who co-authored the paper and studies intelligence in elephants and dolphins at Hunter College at City University in New York — this fact only adds to the significance of the study's most important finding: that Kandula arrived at the solution to his problem not by trial and error, but rather by spontaneous insight — something previously observed in only a few other species, including humans, crows, and chimpanzees.