University of New Hampshire
Mentor: Dr. Michelle Scott, UNH Department of Biological Sciences
Social Intelligence in Asian Elephants, Elephas maximus: Object Choice Tasks
Humans have the ability to communicate their intentions through gestures and actions that allow other humans around them to interpret and react to these intentions. This is called social intelligence. Previous research has shown that some nonhuman animals, e.g. some primates and dogs, can correctly interpret human communication gestures, such as pointing, to perform object choice tasks. In object choice tasks an experimenter hides food in one of two locations unknown to the animal, and then provides the animal with a communicative gesture that reveals the location of the food. The animal is then allowed to choose between the two locations. Nonhuman primates, domesticated dogs and some other social species have been shown to perform well in object choice tasks. Asian elephants are both social and very intelligent. Can they perform well in object choice tasks?
This research tested three female Asian elephants, housed at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park in Syracuse, NY, in object choice tasks. Each elephant was tested in five experiments, each with a different gesture, for ten trials. Overall none of the three elephants performed the object choice tasks above what would be expected random. The older two particularly, treated the task as an operant conditioning exercise and continued to go to the choice that was first rewarded. However, there were age differences between the elephants and the behavior of the youngest of the three varied from the older two. She was more attentive and persistent with her investigatory behavior. The research seems to suggest that age, as well as background of training may have influenced the results of the experiments.