Weapons, Ear Cleaners, and Fly Swatters: Elephant Tool Use

Shimon Shuchat
Apr 23, 2018 · 4 min read
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Image for post
Caption: An African elephant calf uses a piece of bark to scratch its back [photo: Sean Parker/Caters; The Telegraph, 27 July 2015; telegraph.co.uk)]

Tool use is defined as the utilization, modification, and/or manipulation of an object by an animal to bring about a change upon itself or its environment¹. This behavior was thought to be uniquely human for quite some time² but over the past few decades it has been discovered in a wide variety of animals ranging from chimpanzees and monkeys to dolphins and crows². Recently, a number of studies have revealed that elephants can also be added to the already impressive list of tool using species.

There are many recorded examples of tool use in both captive and wild elephants. For example, African elephants have been seen using tree trunks and heavy branches to weigh down fences so they can climb over them³. They have also been observed using tools in aggressive contexts which includes brandishing sticks at vehicles, throwing objects at other animals, and hitting humans with branches held in their trunks³. Elephants also use tools for personal care (cleaning ears and wounds)³ ⁴and sometimes even hold onto them for later use⁴.

One kind of elephant tool use that has been the subject of intense investigation is their use of branches and other vegetation to swat flies. Benjamin Hart and his colleagues conducted two studies on this behavior between 1994 and 2001⁵ ⁶. In the first study⁵ 15 captive Asian elephants were presented with branches (similar to those that elephants were previously observed using to swat flies). The number of swats was then counted at various points throughout the day when different amounts of flies were present in the area. Hart found that the number of swats increased when there were more flies and that the number of flies on and around the elephants decreased by 43% when branches were available. These findings suggest that the branches are likely being used to combat these irritating insects.

Hart et al.⁶ then set out to determine whether elephants could modify branches to make them more effective fly swatters. His team presented 13 Asian Elephants with branches that were either too long or too bushy to be used. Eight elephants were seen modifying the branches by breaking off portions to make them shorter and removing side branches. Elephants are therefore not only able to use objects as tools but can also refine them to better accomplish the task at hand.

Researching tool use in elephants has the potential to provide greater understanding of their capabilities for higher level learning. For example, a recent study⁷ on tool use has revealed that elephants are capable of learning by insight which is the ability to solve problems without trial and error⁷. In this study, which was done at the National Zoo in Washington DC, branches baited with food were hung above an enclosure housing elephants who were then individually presented with either an aluminum tub or a plastic cube. One of the elephants, named Kandula, moved the cube to the location beneath the branches and then stepped on it with his front feet in order to reach them. He did this despite never being trained to move objects for this purpose. In a second experiment Kandula was provided with multiple objects that could only be used to retrieve the food if they were piled on top of each other. While he was never successful in retrieving the food, he did pile two objects together, step on them, and then attempt to reach the food with his trunk multiple times.

Studies on tool use in elephants reveal that they are in fact capable of using tools, that they can manipulate objects to make them more suitable for the purpose, and that they exhibit insight learning. These studies further affirm the high intelligence of these animals and provide insight into how they interact with and manipulate their environment.

References:

¹Beck, Benjamin B. Animal tool behavior. Garland STPM Pub., 1980.

²Seed, Amanda, and Richard Byrne. “Animal tool-use.” Current biology 20, no. 23 (2010): R1032-R1039.

³Chevalier-Skolnikoff, Suzanne, and J. O. Liska. “Tool use by wild and captive elephants.” Animal Behaviour 46, no. 2 (1993): 209–219.

⁴Douglas-Hamilton, I. “DOUGLAS-HAMILTON, 0. 1975. Among the elephants.” London: Collins & Harvill.

⁵Hart, Benjamin L., Lynette A. Hart, Michael McCoy, and C. R. Sarath. “Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching.” Animal Behaviour 62, no. 5 (2001): 839–847.

⁶Hart, Benjamin L., and Lynette A. Hart. “Fly switching by Asian elephants: tool use to control parasites.” Animal Behaviour 48, no. 1 (1994): 35–45.

⁷Foerder, Preston, Marie Galloway, Tony Barthel, Donald E. Moore III, and Diana Reiss. “Insightful problem solving in an Asian elephant.” PloS one 6, no. 8 (2011): e23251.

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