Just as man has his own individual personalities, new research is being conducted into the Journal of Comparative Psychology shows that elephants also have personalities. In addition, an elephant’s personality can play an important role in how well that elephant can solve new problems.
The article was written by Lisa Barrett and Sarah Benson-Amram at the University of Wyoming’s Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab, under the direction of Benson-Amram. It can be viewed here.
The paper’s authors tested 15 Asian elephants and three African savanna elephants in three zoos across the country – the San Diego Zoo, Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park, and the Oklahoma City Zoo – with the help of elephant handlers.
Previous work by Barrett and Benson-Amram showed that Asian elephants can use water as a tool to solve a novel problem – and get a tasty marshmallow reward – in what is known as the floating object task. This time the authors designed new, novel tasks and personality tests for the elephants.
“We took a holistic approach, using three different problem-solving tasks and three types of personality assessments to determine whether individual personality played a role in elephants’ ability to solve these tasks,” says Barrett. “Since we couldn’t take the elephant’s personality test like you know him online, we had to think creatively.”
The authors developed novel object tests in which they presented the elephants with an unknown object, a mylar balloon, a burnt tree trunk and the smell of a predator (lion or hyena) and recorded the reactions of the elephants. You can watch videos of the novel object experiments: balloon, burnt tree trunk and urine. They also asked elephant keepers to complete a survey on the personalities of the animals they were caring for; and finally, they observed the elephants’ interaction in their zoo habitats.
From these evaluations, Barrett and Benson-Amram learned that the surveys and observations were the most reliable methods of determining elephant personality. Overall, Barrett and Benson-Amram measured traits such as active, affectionate, aggressive, defiant, excitable, malicious, shy, and sociable, which were also examined in other animals.
“We were curious to see whether the personality traits that we uncovered through the surveys and observations would predict success in novel problem-solving tasks,” says Benson-Amram. “The elephants had the opportunity to complete each task three times and we measured whether they had learned to solve faster over time, and then we attributed their success to their personality type.”
The three problem-solving tasks included the trap tube task, which is a commonly used test in primates but has never been done outside of primates before. You can watch videos of the problem-solving attempts: boxing ball, rodball and downspout.
Barrett and Benson-Amram found that over time elephants learned to complete two of the three tasks more quickly, although the elephants were only given three attempts for each task. Overall, traits such as aggressiveness and activity were important predictors of problem solving, but the measured personality traits did not significantly predict learning ability.
This study makes links between two sources of individual variation, personality and cognition, in endangered species. One reason it is important to study problem solving in elephants is because they face new problems that they must regularly solve in the wild. For example, if certain traits enable elephants to overcome new problems, then elephants are more likely to invade farmland and contribute to human-elephant conflict. With more research, managers can predict which elephants might overcome or get used to deterrents, and managers can devote more resources to tracking elephants.
The authors call for more work on different forms of personality assessment to determine which methods are best for managing zoo and wild elephants.
“Research on wild elephants can expand this study to determine which personality traits are most important in solving new problems elephants experience in the wild,” said Barrett, a graduate of the UW Ecology Program and Department of Zoology and Physiology 2020.
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