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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Send for the tusk force! Why elephants really are good at teamwork


Teamwork: Researchers were amazed at how quickly the elephants started working together

They are famed for their feats of extraordinary memory. Now a new study has shown that elephants are equally good at lending a helping trunk.

In a series of experiments the gentle giants showed off the kind of co-operation skills normally seen in humans or chimpanzees when trying to get food.

The researchers who studied the elephants were amazed how quickly they learnt to work together.

Cambridge University psychologist Dr Joshua Plotnik who carried out the study at a Thai elephant sanctuary, said there was plenty of anecdotal evidence of elephants helping each other out.

'There are reports of an elephant falling into a mud pit - and two other elephants standing on each side to left them out,' he said. 'Elephants have been seen coming back to the location of dead family members and touching their bones. And in groups, elephants will wait to allow others to catch up if they have fallen behind.'

With colleagues from America and Thailand, Dr Plotnik designed an experiment to test the social skills of six pairs of adults.

Helping: In the wild elephants take care of one another and the females help look after one another's young

The researchers placed a tray laden with two bowls of food behind a net and arranged two 'lanes' for elephants to stand in front of the net.

A rope was then threaded through the tray and each end lay in one of the lanes for the elephant to pick up.

The tray was arranged so that the food could only be pulled towards the elephants if both ends of the rope were tugged in the same direction. If just one elephant pulled on the rope, the rope would become unthreaded and the food would not move.

The elephants were briefly taught that pulling on the ropes moved the tray and then put through their paces.

In the first series of tests the creatures quickly learned to pull the rope only if their partner had the rope in his or her trunk.

In a variation of the same test, one elephant was released into its lane before the other one. In the vast majority of cases, the elephant only picked up the rope once a second elephant had been released into the neighbouring lane and was standing next to it.

The researchers also tested the problem solving skills of the elephants by occasionally curling up one of the ropes and putting in sight but out of reach.

Four out of five elephants didn't bother trying to pull the tray if their partner was standing next to them - but couldn't reach their rope, the researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

'Elephants may have reached a cooperative skill level on a par with that of chimpanzees,' the authors report.

One of the elephants even found a way to cheat the test by standing on its rope with a foot. Its partner then did all the work, but it still got the food reward.
'I wasn't surprised they could do this because I have worked with elephants,' said Dr Plotnik. 'But I was surprised how quickly they learnt to work together in this way.'

In the wild, elephants live in large single sex family groups. The female groups - which contain several generations - are particularly sociable and help each other raise young calves.

'If you have closely related females living together, taking care of the young, there's no need for conflict,' he added.

source : dailymail


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