You’ve Got a Friend in Me: Cooperative Behavior in Elephants

Rebecca DeWees
May 27, 2019 · 5 min read
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Peaceful coexistence of elephants in Dzanga Bai (Central African Republic)
© The Elephant Listening Project

Elephants have long been renowned as not only the largest, but also among the most intelligent creatures to roam planet Earth¹. They have been shown to maintain complex group social structures and to display sophisticated cooperative behaviors among their brethren². Moreover, elephants have exhibited other unique behaviors including self-recognition when standing in front of a mirror. This observation may indicate elephants’ capacity for self-awareness, empathy, and altruism³. Such complex abilities have also been displayed by some of the most highly developed minds in the animal kingdom such as humans and non-human primates².

Elephant society is matriarchal with the eldest female being the dominant leader of a group of related females and their offspring. In contrast, after dispersing from their mother’s family group, the males begin to form loose bachelor herds until they reach sexual maturity⁴. The structure and function of such elephant family units is unique to all elephant species including the Asian elephants, the African savannah elephant, and the African forest elephant. In comparison to the other species, however, the fundamental social unit of the African forest elephant tends to include fewer individuals. Such superficial differences in social structure among elephant species do not, however, negate the underlying characteristics of particular behaviors manifested by elephants. These behaviors, documented to some extent in each elephant species, encompass allomothering, where reproductively inactive females care for the offspring of another female, assisting distressed or injured individuals, and group protection of calves. The inherent interactions among family members have captivated researchers for years and have hinted at elephants’ social consciousness.

Despite interest in the cognitive bases and mechanisms for exhibiting such complicated sociality, proving elephants’ tendency for cooperation through research has been problematic due to the danger and difficulty of performing the necessary cognitive tests². In spite of the challenges, Joshua Plotnik and colleagues adopted and modified a cooperation experiment originally used for chimpanzees in the 1930’s to evaluate the ability of a group of captive Asian elephants to perform cooperative behaviors².

Joshua Plotnik and his team of researchers worked with 12 captive Asian elephants, and their personalized trainers called “mahouts,” at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand to put the elephants’ cooperative abilities to the test². The elephants participated in a series of tasks that required cooperation among pairs of individuals. An apparatus was created that allowed the elephants to pull on two ropes attached to a sliding table with two separate bowls filled with a delicious corn treat. The trick to successfully pull the sliding table forward to retrieve the food bowls was for the elephants to coordinate their efforts to pull the ropes simultaneously. If one rope was pulled before the other, the rope would become unfastened and leave the table and the food far from reach behind a volleyball net barrier². Such tasks would allow researchers to evaluate the extent to which the elephants understand the role of their partners in complicated cooperative scenarios².

The elephants first learned to pull a single rope based on training received by their mahouts and then participated in pair trials where the elephants quickly learned to pull the rope along with their partners. This initial test condition reveals little about the elephants’ actual understanding of coordination because they may have simply been acting based on the experience of their individual training: “see the rope, pull the rope”². It is widely known that many animals engage in cooperative behaviors that require little cognitive skill or understanding of the mechanisms of such helping behaviors as they are naturally programmed to perform those behaviors. The researchers ensured that their tests would accurately evaluate if the elephants were simply acting by learned behaviors or understanding the task at hand on a more significant level. As a result, the elephants were further tested in more revealing scenarios.

Ultimately, the elephant pairs demonstrated that they could coordinate their pulling of two ends of a rope and altered their behavior when conditions changed. When researchers staggered the elephants’ release times towards the ropes, the first elephant clearly waited (as long as 45 seconds) for the arrival of their partner before starting to pull the rope. Additionally, an elephant would refrain from pulling if their partner lacked access to the rope. Such behaviors demonstrate an understanding of cooperation to achieve a shared goal. The elephants learned, in spite of training, that their cooperation and their partner’s presence and actions were necessary to successfully finish the task².

Elephants have shown to be exceedingly social creatures that demonstrate a tendency to adapt to new situations regardless of former learning strategies. Such adaptability was demonstrated by two of the tested elephants’ alternate methods of success in the experiment. One elephant stepped on the rope and let the partner do all the work to retrieve the food bowls while another waited for the release of his partner before even approaching the rope². Other creatures that have participated in similar tests, such as rooks, fail to wait for their partners before retrieving a bounty and do not recognize the need for a partner to receive better rewards².

In the future, such evaluations may be performed on other captive species of elephant for more conclusive results. Moreover, although there are currently no captive African forest elephants to evaluate, the novel results discovered by the work performed with Asian elephants offer numerous insights into the behavior and mentality of all elephants. In understanding the nature of elephant behavior, steps may be taken to more effectively and efficiently protect these creatures from individuals who seek to harm them.

Works Cited

¹Jabr, Ferris. “The science is in: Elephants are even smarter than we realized.” Scientific American 26 (2014). Retrieved from

²Joshua M. Plotnik, Richard Lair, Wirot Suphachoksahakun, Frans B. M. de Waal (2011). “Elephants Know When They Need a Helping Trunk in a Cooperative Task.” PNAS. Retrieved from

³Plotnik, Joshua M., Frans BM De Waal, and Diana Reiss. “Self-recognition in an Asian elephant.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103, no. 45 (2006): 17053–17057. Retrieved from

⁴Shulte, Bruce (2000). “Social Structure and Helping Behavior in Captive Elephants.” Zoo Biology, 19, 447–459. Retrieved from

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