Body Awareness in Elephants is New Evidence of Their High Intelligence

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-14 08:11

A new discovery about the body awareness of elephants is another piece of evidence that elephants are highly intelligent.

Elephants are kind of awesome, in the truest sense of the word. There have been a number of discoveries about them that serve as evidence of how awesome they are. Scientists have discovered that elephants mourn their dead, which is quite a rare behavior in non-human animals. Elephants also display altruism, cooperation, as well as different emotions.

Elephants have shown empathy and cooperation toward members of their species.
[Photo by Cristy Zinn]

Researchers have recently found that elephants can easily recognize situations in which their own bodies are obstacles to a goal. Scientists say that this is evidence of the high capacity for self-awareness in elephants.

The Mirror Test

Since the 1800s, scientists have been testing self-awareness in animals by putting them in front of a mirror. If animals are able to recognize that what they see is their own reflection, scientists conclude that these animals have a degree of self-awareness.

In 1970, psychologist Gordon G. Gallup discovered that chimpanzees are able to recognize their reflections in a mirror. Dolphins, orcas, apes, and magpies have all passed the mirror test, as well as an Asian elephant named Happy.

One problem with the mirror test, however, is that it may not be as effective for animals who don't rely as much on vision. Elephants, for example, rely more on sensory information from their trunks and ears. Thus, a body awareness test may be a good complement to the mirror test.

At 18 to 25 months of age, children start to be able to recognize their own reflections in a mirror and thus pass the mirror test. At this same age, children also begin to develop an awareness of how their bodies may be a hindrance to completing a task.

The Body Awareness Test

To test body awareness in elephants, the researchers traveled to Thailand to perform an experiment on 12 Asian elephants. They had the elephants learn to pick up a stick and hand it to their trainers.

After this, the researchers tied the stick to a mat. The elephants would then have to step on the mat in order to pick the stick up from the ground. However, the elephants would not be able to pick the stick up because it's tied to the mat they're stepping on. In order to retrieve the stick, the elephants would have to realize that they need to step off the mat. When researchers hadn't tied the stick to the mat, the elephants didn't even bother to lift their feet off the mat.

To see how the elephants did, watch this video.

The researchers found that the elephants very quickly figured out what they needed to do in order to retrieve the stick. This meant that the elephants quickly realized that their own bodies were an obstacle to completing a task.

The body awareness these elephants displayed is more complex than body functions like self-grooming in animals. Acts like self-grooming are more instinctive, like scratching an itch. Being aware that your body is an obstacle to something, however, requires a higher level of awareness.

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