Elephants have a long relationship with humans, especially Asian elephants, which have been used as work animals for centuries at least. In places like Thailand and India, they not only live alongside humans, but are also in competition for land and resources. In order to help preserve elephant spaces, and elephants themselves, it’s important that we learn more about how these complex creatures live.
Since elephants are widely considered to be among the smartest animals on the planet, researchers have decided to test their “body-awareness,” a measure of whether or not they are aware of their own bodies as unique entities, which can possible get in the way of completing tasks.
“We know, for example, that [elephants] are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognize themselves in a mirror,” said researcher Rachel Dale, a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. “These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates.”
Another measure of self-awareness, the “mirror test,” determines if a creature can identify its own reflection. However, critics have argued that the test is limited in its ability to investigate complex thoughts and understanding. They have also said that it’s less useful in testing animals who don’t rely primarily on vision to interpret their environment.
In response to those criticisms, the researchers tested Asian elephants by having them stand on a mat and hand a baton to a human. In the experiment, the baton was attached to the mat, so that the elephant’s weight prevented them from handing it over unless they stepped off the mat. On average, the elephants in the experiment figured this out and stepped off the mat in 42 out of 48 tests.
“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” said researcher Dr. Josh Plotnik, a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge. “The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task.”
A similar test with children requires them to push a cart attached to a mat under their feet. But even human children generally have problems with this test until they’re about two years old.
This is an important study, because it shows that elephants are aware of themselves, and it can also help us to better understand how they see not only themselves, but their relationships to others, which likely underscore many aspects of elephant society.
“The more we can understand about elephants’ behavior, the more we can understand what their needs are, how they think, and the strains they face in their social relationships,” Plotnick said. “This will help us if we are going to try to come up with viable long-term solutions to the problems that these animals face in the wild, especially those that bring them into regular conflict with humans.”