Just four days ago, PLOS ONE published Think Elephants International’s most recent study entitled “Visual Cues Given by Humans Are Not Sufficient for Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) to Find Hidden Food.”
For humans and elephants alike, there is more to this study than meets the eye.
Let’s start first with the elephants and take a look at what the task entailed for these enormous research subjects.
The experimental design is straightforward. Present two buckets—one baited and one empty—to an elephant. Give the elephant a visual cue as to which of the two buckets is baited by pointing at it. Then, simply let the elephant make a choice between the two. If she chooses the baited bucket, then she gets to eat the food reward within.
Study drawings by A. Hennessy
Dogs excel at this task.
One likely explanation for this is that dogs have been domesticated. In short, over thousands of years, we have selectively bred dogs that can read human social cues. In each generation, dogs exhibiting preferable behavior were bred while dogs that didn't exhibit such behavior were not. Thus, the dog population has been artificially shaped through domestication. The domestication hypothesis stands as a potential explanation for why dogs are so good at understanding our arbitrary pointing cue.
This hypothesis fails to explain why certain non-domesticated animals (dolphins, South African fur seals, and several bird species) have also succeeded in following the pointing cue. A factor to consider here is that, while they have not been domesticated, many of these animals have had daily experience with humans.
Captive elephants are exposed to humans on a daily basis too—indeed, they live in near constant contact with their mahouts—but surprisingly, the elephants did not succeed in this task.
While the results underline the elephant’s inability to understand our pointing gesture, it remains unclear whether this inability is a product of the elephant never having been domesticated or whether the results remark more strongly on the elephant’s sensory perception and perhaps secondary sense of sight. In order to interpret what a cue means you must first and foremost be able to see it.
So, how exactly does this research impact conservation?
Dr. Plotnik, TEI founder and CEO, explains, “If elephants are not primarily using sight to navigate their natural environment, human-elephant conflict mitigation techniques must consider what elephants' main sensory modalities are and how elephants think so that they might be attracted or deterred effectively as a situation requires.”
Conflict between humans and Asian elephants over land is a huge problem. We need to know which senses elephants use to receive different information so that we can relay information to them effectively. By delivering appropriate signals, we can contain these incredibly powerful and intelligent animals within predetermined spaces, where they will be safe from humans and humans will be safe from them.
Now that we've covered the elephants, let me bring another aspect of this study into focus.
While efforts to point out a subtle detail to the elephants would likely prove, well… pointless, I should draw attention to the fact that thirteen middle school students (East Side Middle School, NYC) are authors on this publication.
Dr. Plotnik does not bestow authorship haphazardly.
These students were awarded authorship because of the genuine contributions they made toward the design and implementation of this experiment through participation in Think Elephants’ education program.
M.S. 114 East Side Middle School students in NYC collaborate with Dr. Plotnik at the TEI field site in Thailand via Skype
Dr. Pokorny, TEI head of education programs, notes, “Think Elephants is committed to showcasing these productive, informative and exciting student collaborations, and we believe similar studies can help to change the way in which young people observe and appreciate their global environment."
Elephants may not be “looking” to scientists for a better understanding of how research links to conservation, but this study provides overwhelmingly positive evidence that kids are eager to learn how they can help. Beyond being perceptive observers, they can be influential participants. That’s the point of Think Elephants International.
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