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Elephants do not judge humans

11.02.2021: Elephants are highly cooperative animals. Scientists at Vetmeduni therefore examined how elephants work with people and whether they draw conclusions from observations. The experiment showed that the animals did not differentiate between cooperative and non-cooperative humans when deciding to cooperate – a surprising result. This could possibly be due to challenges in study design because other scientific evidence suggests that elephants can form judgments about people.

Eavesdropping, defined as gathering information from interactions between others, is a common strategy in the animal kingdom. Studies on eavesdropping typically involve animals observing human-human interactions in a begging situation, with a generous person giving food to a human “beggar” and a selfish person refusing to do so. Human-human interactions, however, are not ecologically relevant, which is why observing human-animal interactions could be more important for animals living with humans, as humans often provide them with valuable resources such as food and shelter. This is in terms of both domesticated and non-domesticated species, such as Asian elephants, which have been living with humans for a long time.

Elephants cooperate with other elephants

In a recently published study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, an international research team led by Vetmeduni investigated, for the first time, the ability of Asian elephants to form reputations about humans and act on this information. Elephants are highly cooperative animals and have already experimentally demonstrated that they will “pull together” with others of their kind to achieve a goal. In the so-called string-pulling test, two ends of a string must be pulled simultaneously to move a platform with food rewards into reach. If only one end of the string is pulled, the string comes loose and the platform remains inaccessible.

Human partners are not specifically chosen

The researchers adapted this experiment so that the elephants had to work together with a human to complete the task. The elephants gathered the necessary information either through direct interaction or by observing another animal interacting with a human. The results showed that the animals did not selectively choose the human partners. “We found no support for our hypothesis that elephants can differentiate between cooperative and non-cooperative humans through indirect or direct experience,” says first author Hoi-Lam Jim from the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at Vetmeduni.

Study design challenges as a possible reason

For this reason, the researchers conducted a follow-up experiment to investigate whether elephants could differentiate between a generous and a selfish partner in a begging situation without the need for cooperation. But even in this experiment, the elephants showed no preference for any individual person. “The results may be due to challenges with the experimental design rather than the animals’ lack of capacity. We propose that future experiments better account for the elephants’ use of multimodal sensory information in their decision-making,” says Jim. One of the challenges in study design mentioned by the scientists is how to evaluate the motivation and attention of elephants. Another reason could also be that the elephants did not gain enough experience in the experiment to make appropriate decisions because other scientific evidence suggests – contrary to the present study – that elephants are quite capable of forming judgments about people.

The article “Investigating Indirect and Direct Reputation Formation in Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus)” by Hoi-Lam Jim, Friederike Range, Sarah Marshall-Pescini, Rachel Dale and Joshua M. Plotnik was published in Frontiers in Psychology.