Seeing the World Through the Elephant’s Eyes

In our second Anantara Hotels Resorts & Spas #ElephantProfessional lecture, Joshua Plotnik recalled some of the world-renowned researches that he, Think Elephants International and Hunter College have conducted.

Sense of self, cooperation, and how elephants perceive the world

The mirror test is undeniably one of Plotnik’s most famous experiments. In order to understand an animal’s ability to recognize itself, Plotnik and his team placed a large mirror in front of the elephant to see if they would realize their own reflection. A dog, for example, is unable to recognize itself through the mirror.

Experiment on elephant’s capability of self recognition and cooperation. Screenshots of Plotnik’s lecture.

The final test – the mark test – is to place a mark somewhere on the animal’s body that can only be seen through the reflection in the mirror. If said individual begins looking and examining the mark with the help of the mirror, it is highly likely that the animal is capable of self-recognition.

And the elephant started inspecting the mark right on the site here at GTAEF.

In the cooperation experiment, Plotnik and his team designed a special sliding table that would only move if two elephants pull on it at the same time. With a little reward, an elephant in the experiment would only start pulling on the table when their partner had also arrived, thus showing how Asian elephants were capable of cooperating with one another to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be unachievable.

Experiment on elephant’s capability to find food with by seeing and smelling. Screenshots from Plotnik’s lecture.

Plotnik and his team also looked into how elephants made use of their different senses in the environment. In their experimentation on the elephants’ ability to perceive visual cues by humans, however, they failed to yield any positive results.

“I thought, ‘what if the world the elephant sees is not the world we see,'” realized Plotnik.

They then re-visited their hypothesis and replaced visual cues with auditory stimuli. This time they found that elephants were able to pick up auditory commands made by the mahouts.

In a similar fashion, they also found out how efficiently and effectively the elephants could use the trunk to pick up olfactory cues in an experiment setting.

“It’s been a privilege to work with these majestic animals,” emphasized Plotnik.

Why study the elephants?

“How can we understand the conflict between humans and elephants […] if we don’t understand how elephants think and make the decisions that they do?”

Joshua Plotnik

According to Plotnik, comparative psychologists would traditionally look at the closest relatives of humans so as to understand the evolution of intelligence; however, common ancestry was not always able to fill in all the gaps.

Another branch of researches, which Plotnik is part of, looks into convergent cognitive evolution, such as how crows, dolphins, elephants, dogs and other evolutionarily distant animals display similarities in intelligence (e.g., the use of tools to find food and to overcome obstacle) in response to similarities in environmental pressure.

In order to conserve the Asian elephants as an endangered species, it would be important for humans to peek into the world of the elephants.

“How can we understand the conflict between humans and elephants […] if we don’t understand how elephants think and make the decisions that they do,” questioned Plotnik.

You can now watch Plotnik’s lecture in full here.

Disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily represent Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.