Anecdotal stories are seen by many as a notoriously unscientific method of assessing a hypothesis and are often rejected as valid data by scientists. However, they’re not always unreliable and can be of great value to scientists, particularly those of us who study animal cognition. Elephants are a good example of how anecdotes can be helpful in animal cognition research. It is well accepted that elephants are among the most intelligent species on the planet, yet there has been surprisingly little experimental research on their intelligence (something Think Elephants International is trying to rectify!). So how has this assumption about elephant intelligence come about?
Well, mainly from anecdotes. But these stories can form the basis of experimental studies. Observing behaviour in a natural setting can lead us to believe that animals have a certain ability, and this observation can be followed up with more controlled tests in an experimental setting. Let me give a couple of examples.
Many instances of elephant intelligence come from elephants showing concern towards one another. For example, in Amboseli, Kenya, where almost 40 years of elephant observations have taken place, a bull elephant was seen to pull out a tranquiliser dart from another bull elephant and then dropped the dart immediately clearly suggesting this bull was aiming to help the first bull rather than merely showing interest in the dart itself. Another example is what often occurs surrounding a sick or dying elephant. Family members attempting to lift a sick animal into a standing position have been witnessed on a number of occasions and the rest of the family will usually stay close by the animal rather than following normal migration patterns, even after the animal has died. Furthermore, when passing by that area again the family may stop for a while and touch the remains of the deceased elephant.
|An elephant tries to assist a dying matriarch. Photo credit: Shivani Bhalla|
These examples, among many others, have led scientists to conduct more rigorous research into elephant empathy, grief and cooperation with very positive findings. Incidentally one of these scientists was Dr Josh Plotnik (TEI Founder) who discovered that elephants understand when they need to cooperate with another in order to solve a task. These findings support the anecdotes that seemed to suggest elephants have a very high social intelligence.
So although only ‘stories’, these anecdotal reports can give important insights into natural behaviour, as well as inspiration for controlled experiments. There are often many possible explanations for why an event or behaviour may have occurred but that does not mean that it should be overlooked entirely. Science needs these stories.
By Rachel Dale