Elephants like to collaborate on tasks unless food sources are limited, study shows

Even elephants get hangry! Animals like to collaborate on tasks – unless food sources are limited, research shows

  • Research found Asian elephants collaborate on tasks in their social groups
  • However, this partnership breaks down if their food sources are limited
  • Nine Asian elephants in an elephant camp in Yangon, Myanmar were studied










We can all get a little “hangry” from time to time when we are forced to operate on an empty stomach.

And it seems that elephants are no different.

They like to collaborate on tasks and have developed strategies to reduce competition in their social groups, but collaboration breaks down when food resources are limited, a new study has found.

“We found that Asian elephants have a diverse repertoire of behaviors to use when collaborating with others, and are careful about reducing competition based on their relationships,” said Li-Li Li, who led the study with colleagues from the United States. Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, China.

‘This is an exciting demonstration of how adaptable and socially intelligent elephants are!’

Asian elephants like to collaborate on tasks, but collaboration fails when food resources are limited, new study has found

THE ASIAN ELEPHANT

STATUS threatened

POPULATION Less than 50,000

SCIENTIFIC NAME The biggest elephant

HEIGHT 6.5-11.5 feet

WEIGHT About £11,000

LENGTH About 21 feet

HABITS forests

Source: WWF

Researchers studied nine semi-wild Asian elephants at the Myaing Hay Wun Elephant Camp in Yangon, Myanmar, and got them to work on a series of tasks.

The first saw the animals offer two bowls of food that could only be accessed by pulling two ropes at once — a challenge that required two trunks.

They found that elephant pairs worked together successfully in 80 percent of the trials.

Some elephants tried to cheat, for example by ‘freeloading’ and stealing part of the reward from another cooperating pair.

While competitive behavior was common, elephants also used mitigating strategies such as fighting back or moving sides to avoid cheating and maintain cooperation.

Then the researchers repeated the trials with a single tray, meaning one partner could dominate the reward and the other left without food.

This more competitive scenario led to more expensive and spicier behavior from the elephants, including fighting, with the cooperation quickly breaking down as the animals tried to access the reward for themselves.

The study sheds light on the evolution of cooperative behavior in mammals.

Similar results have also been found in nonhuman primates, suggesting that distantly related species have evolved similar strategies to maintain cooperation in their social groups, the authors said.

Researchers studied nine semi-wild Asian elephants at the Myaing Hay Wun Elephant Camp in Yangon, Myanmar, and got them to work on a series of tasks

Researchers studied nine semi-wild Asian elephants at the Myaing Hay Wun Elephant Camp in Yangon, Myanmar, and got them to work on a series of tasks

Unlike many primates, elephants are browsers and grazers that are unlikely to encounter monopolisable food sources in the wild, which may explain why the collaboration failed in the more competitive scenario.

The Asian elephant is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

According to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it is under increasing pressure in the wild due to habitat destruction caused by human population growth.

As the human population continues to grow, elephants have less room to live naturally and are forced into smaller areas and more conflict with humans.

The study is published in the journal PLOS Biology.

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