In Brief

Despite possessing the largest brain of all land mammals, Asian elephants fail to glean the underlying purpose of tasks and instead follow training in a rote manner, according to a study in the January Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes (Vol. 32, No. 1).

The study challenges previous research that has suggested elephants are capable of thought, insight and self-awareness, says study author Moti Nissani, PhD, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Michigan's Wayne State University.

"Working with the elephants at first, it seems like they gradually gain insight and learn to complete the task," says Nissani. "But as circumstances change, their behavior does not."

In one study, trainers showed 11 Asian elephants in a central Burma forest how to remove the lid of a tapered green bucket to obtain food from the bottom of the bucket. At first, a trainer squatted behind the bucket, facing the elephant, and gradually trained the elephant to retrieve the food from a bucket without a lid. Once the elephant mastered the task, the trainer added a lid and helped the elephant learn to remove it.

After the elephants learned the new task, the trainer placed the lid on the ground a short distance away from the edge of the bucket. However, the elephants continued to toss the lid aside before removing food from the bucket.

In a second experiment, three Asian elephants completed the same tasks as in the first experiment, but with a white or black teak box and a depression in the ground instead of a bucket and lid. Like the other elephants, they tossed the box aside before taking the food from the depression.

The results suggest that the elephants are not learning through reasoning, but rather rely on trial and error learning, says Nissani.

"It seems like the elephants are following training blindly," he says. "They have no conception of what they're doing."

Nissani suggests that his findings differ from previous findings because previous researchers sought to confirm insight and thinking rather than searching for counterexamples or explanations.

In future studies, Nissani aims to investigate whether other animals-such as ravens-possess the ability to understand the relationship between their actions and the consequences of their actions.

-Z. Stambor