Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Elephant See, Elephant Do: Evidence of Social Learning in Elephants

By Sophie Wasserman

In 2010, a group of researchers working with African elephants combined their almost 30 years of behavioral data to try to understand the phenomenon of “false estrous.” Females who weren’t in estrous (were not sexually receptive and able to conceive) were demonstrating all the typical signs of being in heat: holding their head and tail high, exaggerating their walk, and touching males more frequently. What the scientists found was that in each case of “false estrous,” the faker was in close proximity to a juvenile female entering estrous for the first time. Ruling out alternative explanations, the study postulated that these were teaching moments, that the naïve young females were being shown the correct behavior and learning from the older females’ demonstrations. 

Elephants are reared in tight knit family groups
via Wikimedia Commons
 Instances like these are called social learning, when an individual takes information gained by observing the behavior of others and applies it later to similar situations. In other words: monkey see, monkey do. Though it sounds simple, social learning is actually a complex cognitive process and is thought to indicate high intelligence in a species. 

Herd of Asian elephants
via Wikimedia Commons
            Typically, mammals are already born with about 90% of their adult brain weight, such that most of their behaviors are innate and instinctual. Humans, on the other hand, are only born with about 28% of our adult brains, so much of our knowledge and behavior has to be acquired during our childhood as our brain develops. Estimates for the natal brain weight of elephants range from 35-50%, indicating they too have a lot of learning to do as they grow up.
The most prevalent examples of social learning in elephants are found in young calves during their periods of high brain development. To learn proper foraging techniques, calves will examine, and sometimes “steal,” the food in their older relatives’ mouths, sampling the foods that are safe to eat to learn their taste and smell. Calves as young as 18 months have been shown to mimic the fly switching behavior of older adults, grasping and modifying a branch to use as a tool to repel insects after having seen their mothers do the same. Young males will follow full-grown bulls, observing their interactions with estrous females and smelling all of the same puddles of urine to refine their sense of smell.
Calf samples mother's snack
via Wikimedia Commons
An attempt to empirically demonstrate social learning in elephants produced mixed results. Researchers at the San Diego Zoo constructed a variety of puzzles that could be solved one of two ways, both of which resulted in a tasty treat for the elephant. In test conditions, each puzzle was first given to the matriarch of the herd, while another female was placed in an enclosure alongside. After the second female was given time to observe the matriarch, the matriarch was removed and the second female was allowed access to the toy. 
Bleum scratches herself with a stick as Am looks on

Contrary to predictions, the second elephant was just as likely to copy the puzzle solving strategy of the matriarch as to adopt the second unobserved strategy for solving the puzzle. However, the second elephant spent much more time examining and playing with the apparatus when she had witnessed the matriarch doing so, as compared to control conditions when the female was given access to the toy with no prior social exposure. In this way, the elephants are showing non-imitative social learning; the observer elephant is not directly learning a sequence of movements, but rather learning the value of a particular object, in this case, that the toy provides food.

The importance of social role models in elephant society is also demonstrated by the abnormal behaviors of elephants when they lack one. Wild elephants were played recorded elephant calls from a variety of individuals classified as non-threatening (those who were familiar or young and less dominant) or threatening (unfamiliar or older and more dominant). Herds in Amboseli National Park, which has remained relatively untouched by humans, were better able to recognize threatening calls, reacted with more listening and sniffing, and bunched together more frequently than the herd in Pilanesberg Park, which had been translocated as calves after the controlled culling of all the older elephants. The Pilanesberg elephants who were raised without role models did not show appropriate defensive measures when exposed to the more dominant calls, something the Amboseli elephants had passed down from older to younger generations
Mother and calf
via Wikimedia Commons
These findings have important ramifications for current human-elephant conflict. Though the practice of culling is dying out, the upswing in poaching has similar effects; by removing large, dominant individuals, poachers are destroying the fabric of elephant society, leaving behind calves to grow up with no guidance. With no social role models, young males especially can become out of control, exacerbating tensions between local human populations and their dwindling elephant neighbors. Further research into social learning, examining how and when elephants learn from each other, could shed some light on possible solutions to this troubling problem. 


Bates, L. A., Handford, R., Lee, P. C., Njiraini, N., Poole, J. H., Sayialel, K., ... & Byrne, R. W. (2010). Why do African elephants (Loxodonta africana) simulate oestrus? An analysis of longitudinal data. PloS one, 5(4), e10052.

Greco, B. J., Brown, T. K., Andrews, J. R., Swaisgood, R. R., & Caine, N. G. (2013). Social learning in captive African elephants (Loxodonta africana africana). Animal cognition, 1-11.

Shannon, G., Slotow, R., Durant, S. M., Sayialel, K. N., Poole, J., Moss, C., & McComb, K. (2013). Effects of social disruption in elephants persist decades after culling. Frontiers in zoology, 10(1), 62.



Elephant family by Siddharth Maheshwari via Wikimedia Commons

Herd of Asian elephants via Wikimedia Commons

I will follow you by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons

Mother and elephant calf at Lampang conservation center by Dpservis via Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. I am thankful to this blog giving unique and helpful knowledge about this topic, I read your blog now share great information here. This blog increse my knowledge source .
    รองเท้า เพื่อ สุขภาพ เท้า