One of the most renowned cognitive abilities of elephants is their resourcefulness and capacity to solve problems. They have been observed using tools such as branches to swat flies and, when faced with challenges, they are remarkably quick to find solutions. Now, in a new study, researchers have found that elephants can also unlock puzzle boxes to access food.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) living in zoos have previously demonstrated a capacity to innovate, but problem-solving has never been studied experimentally in a wild elephant population. An international team of researchers decided to test this by working with 77 wild elephants at Thailand’s Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary, about four hours from Bangkok.
The researchers didn’t train the animals. Instead, they set up motion cameras to watch them in the wild, waiting to see whether they would approach and unlock puzzle boxes with three compartments that were set up in their habitat containing an enticing aromatic jackfruit. The elephants ended up interacting with the boxes and in some cases even obtaining the fruit.
“This is the first study to show that individual wild elephants have different willingness and abilities to problem solve in order to get food,” Sarah Jacobson, study lead author, said in a news release.
“This is important knowledge, because how animals think and innovate may influence their ability to survive in environments that are rapidly changing.”
In the study, the fruit could be reached by the elephants through various means, depending on the compartment. This included pulling a chain to have the door open near the elephant, pushing the door for it to swing open into the box, or sliding the door to the right. The elephants had to interact with the puzzle boxes to find a solution. And many of them did.
A total of 44 of the 77 wild elephants engaged with the puzzle boxes, with individual differences in how innovative they were. The researchers found that the elephants who interacted with the puzzle boxes more frequently and with greater persistence were more successful in getting the food from the three configured compartments.
Overall, a total of 11 elephants solved one compartment type, and eight solved two compartment types. Five elephants could solve all three types, making them the most innovative.
“Individuals varied widely in their success opening the doors of the puzzle box. Such success was influenced by persistence and exploratory diversity,” the researchers wrote.
The findings hold potential implications for conservation management, particularly in mitigating the growing frequency of conflict between humans and elephants due to habitat loss and encroachment into agricultural areas. Asian elephants, the ones tested in the study, used to roam across most of Asia but they are now restricted to just 15% of their original range. There are fewer than 52,000 living in the wild.
“Conflict involving humans and elephants is increasing due to loss of natural habitat and agricultural encroachment into what is left of it,” Joshua Plotnik, study author, said in a news release. “Investigating innovation and problem solving in elephants can inform our understanding of wild elephant cognitive flexibility and its potential impact on conservation.”
The study was published in the journal Animal Behavior.