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Question: If your favorite snack was just out of reach, what would you do?
That’s what Preston Foerder, who studies animal behavior, asked Kandula, a male Asian elephant at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C. Scientists have always thought that using a tool to solve a problem was a sign of higher intelligence. They also thought that only humans were tool users. But then Jane Goodall discovered chimps using sticks to fish termites out of a hole, and ravens were observed making hooks to nab a treat. People who’ve worked with elephants have long known that they are highly intelligent, but no one ever tested an elephant’s ability to use a tool to solve a problem.
To set up the experiment, Preston skewered Kandula’s favorite fruits on a branch and suspended it well out of trunk reach. Then he scattered potential tools such as long bamboo sticks and a heavy-duty plastic cube around the yard.
At first Kandula just stared at the fruit longingly. Occasionally he picked up a stick, but only played with it. On the seventh trial, Kandula got an idea. He rolled the cube several yards so it was beneath the fruit. He placed his two front feet on the cube, stretched his trunk as high as he could, and plucked the fruit off the branch. The next day, as soon as Preston suspended the fruit, Kandula was already shoving his cube into place. He seemed to enjoy his new tool. He used it to peek over walls, to check out birds in a nearby tree, and to eat blossoms off another tree that grew outside his yard.
Later, Kandula showed off by using a tractor tire and then a large ball as a stool. He even figured out that if he stacked one small block on top of another he might be able to reach higher fruit. Although he came up short (he needed to stack 3 blocks), he still showed that his brain was working out the problem.
So, congratulations! If you said you’d use a stool to reach your favorite snack, then you are as smart as an elephant.
Peggy Thomas is co-author of Anatomy of Nonfiction, the only writer’s guide to crafting true stories for children. She is currently working on a book about elephant intelligence. To learn more, visit her website.
Peggy Thomas is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. “Are You as Smart as an Elephant?.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/are-you-as-smart-as-an-elephant?
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