State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Lend me a Helping Trunk

Photo by Follix – Elephants at the Kilimanjaro Safari in Disney's Animal Kingdom, in Orlando, Florida.

Elephants have widely been regarded as cognitively advanced animals, possessing sophisticated brains capable of higher forms of thinking. The brain of an elephant is similar to that of a human, ape, and dolphin in terms of neuro-anatomy and structural complexity, containing a very large and heavily convoluted neo-cortex. This uniquely shared structure allows these animals to display a wide range of behaviors, including self-awareness, use of tools, and even a sense of humor. Despite a deep appreciation for and awareness of the smarts of an elephant, documented evidence is lacking, largely because of the dangers involved in conducting behavioral experiments on these massive land animals.

Drawing upon a study conducted in the 1930’s on chimpanzees, researchers at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge conducted an experiment on elephants aimed at exploring the underlying cognition in completing a coordinated task. The researchers found that elephants understand and can display complex levels of cooperation to reach a common goal – the results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of sciences.

The researchers designed a sliding table with a single rope threaded through it that must be pulled by two elephants at once in order for them to reach two bowls of tasty corn. After the elephants were taught to pull the rope with their trunks, a pair was released. If one elephant pulled the rope before the other, the rope would fall out and prevent the duo from getting the treats. After numerous failed attempts, the elephants realized that they must wait for the assistance of the other. Increasing the difficulty of the challenge, the experimenters released the elephants at different times, challenging one of the elephants to wait even longer for the other to arrive. Still, the elephants managed to act together, sometimes waiting to pull the rope up to 45 seconds if the other was delayed. This display of patience signaled to the researchers that the elephants understood that a partner was needed in order to complete the task. In another experimental variation, the rope was placed out of reach from one of the elephants; often the other elephant would give up on the task, and refrain from even bothering to pull the rope altogether.

Though consistent with observations in nature, the study adds further evidence to the notion that elephants have impressive cognitive abilities.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

My intuition is that, somewhere down the road, we will learn that animals understand, and are capable of, much more than we currently give them credit for. I’m always interested to learn more about how scientists are studying animal intelligence, and elephants certainly are a worthy candidate for such studies. They’ve been known to produce paintings and even visit the bones of dead individuals from their pack. Intelligent and caring too!

13 years ago

Hi Brian. Check out the Elephant Art Gallery website:

You can even purchase your very own elephant painting! I especially like the interpretive titles. (I assume the elephants aren’t using human language yet and the handlers come up with those.)

More about elephant emotions, including video, can be found at PBS’s excellent Nature show “Unforgettable Elephants”:

See also the article “Elephants may pay homage to dead relatives” at NewScientist:

12 years ago

I have never heard of that experiment before. I saw a documentary about Ravens and experiments to test their intelligence but I was quite surprised that one elephant even gave up when he/she realized that the rope is out of reach of the other elephant. That is actually really smart. Some animals would stand there and wait 😉