Vol 7, Issue 3, August 2020

Can Asian Elephants Use Water as a Tool in the Floating Object Task?


Barrett, L. P., & Benson-Amram, S. (2020). Can Asian elephants use water as a tool in the floating object task? Animal Behavior and Cognition, 7(3), 310-326. doi:https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


One of the greatest challenges in comparative cognition is to design tasks that accurately assess cognitive abilities across a diverse set of taxa with differing morphologies and behaviors. The floating object task was designed to test insightful problem solving via water tool use in animals but so far has been tested only in primates. In the floating object task, animals add water to a tube in order to reach a floating food reward. A similar task, the Aesop’s fable task, which is solved by adding stones to the tube, has been used with corvids and raccoons in addition to human children. Elephants are considered to exhibit complex cognitive abilities on par with primates, and they possess a prehensile trunk appendage well-suited for tests of water tool use. Here, we presented the floating object task to 12 zoo-housed Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to determine if they demonstrate innovative problem solving or social learning. One elephant solved the task on her own. Additionally, elephants at one zoo that observed a conspecific solve the task exhibited increased interest in the task compared to baseline elephants, demonstrating social learning via stimulus enhancement. Asian elephants are capable of learning to use water as a tool, but the cognitive abilities underpinning their ability to solve the floating object task remain unclear. Our findings may bolster support for the convergent cognitive evolution of problem solving in elephants and apes, but further research using additional paradigms is needed.


Causal understanding, Elephas maximus, Innovation, Insight, Problem solving, Stimulus enhancement