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Elephant Insight
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The Mind of an Elephant

Why It Matters

I Didn't Know They Could Do That

You've probably experienced more than a few "Eureka" or "Aha" moments in your life. These are experiences that often occur at times of relaxation after struggling with a difficult problem. For example, maybe you were making a volcano for a science fair and struggling to produce a HUGE eruption because you knew the biggest eruption would win the contest. You really wanted to win that contest because there was a cash prize, and you wanted to go skiing and that prize money would buy you a season pass. Life can be complicated at times, and volcanoes don't care about skiing. So after hours of work and frustration and swearing (when no one can hear), you put the project aside. It isn't working and you're sick of it. So you put it out of your mind. Then sometime later when you don't expect it, it happens. You have an "aha" moment and realize if you just add a little more potassium nitrate to your formula you'll get a bigger pop. This sort of thinking or learning is called insight learning. Different researchers will use slightly different definitions (after all that is what scientists do), but the common thread is making a connection which isn't readily obvious and just sort of appears in your head. You put different things together to make something new. Homo sapiens are known for this ability, some of the greatest discoveries of human beings have come from this sort of pathway. It was thought at one time that this sort of thinking helped separate humans from other animals. But does it really? Scientists are starting to discover that this is not necessarily an ability exclusive to humans. They have now added Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) to the select group of insightful animals. Watch this video to see what the buzz is about.

Not impressed? Think it's a fluke? Well, watch another one here.

Nope, it doesn't appear to be a fluke, researchers are now wondering how long they can keep moving this box to different locations before their test subjects get ticked off!

You can read the full study and see more videos at this link. http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0023251#pone.0023251.s005

But don't think elephants are limited to boxes in their learning ability. They also seem to know how to cooperate to solve problems. Watch this.

Pretty impressive! But not quite so quick - scientists love a good story, as much as anyone. That's why they have other scientists around to check and challenge their work. Read this to find out how other scientists are trying to balance out some of the research done in animal intelligence, to make sure scientists are seeking the simplest answer to behavior, not the coolest.

Explore More

Use the resources below to answer the following questions:

  1. What was wrong with the first experiment conducted on elephant insight using sticks? How was this difficulty corrected?
  2. What important principle to remember when studying animals is illustrated by the change in the experiment?
  3. Do you think the elephant's behavior really represents insight learning? Can you think of an alternative explanation for the behavior? Remember the simpler the better.
  4. The study of two elephants working together is impressive, but elephants in the wild do not generally encounter ropes or sleds or bowls of corn. Do you think this situation demands a rethinking of the experiment and reinterpretation of the data? Why or why not? Think carefully before answering, the correctness of your answer is largely dependent on your reasoning.

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