Elephants will cooperate to acquire food – assuming there is enough

It’s a Inside science story.

Cooperation is at the heart of most societies. For Asian elephants in a recent study, a little teamwork helped them access delicious bananas. A new study examines elephants’ ability to work together for reward and the circumstances that limit their ability to cooperate.

Li-Li Li, a doctoral student at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said she chose to work on elephants because she always dreamed of working with larger animals. of the planet. Li and his colleagues also wanted to understand what motivated the cooperation. Elephants, evolutionarily distant from primates, were a perfect vehicle for studying how cooperation could occur in distant species.

In 2011, a group of researchers published an article showing that Asian elephants in Thailand could cooperate to obtain food rewards on a table out of reach, using a rope that they had to pull at the same time. They waited for partners before shooting, showing that they understood how cooperation worked and that their partner’s behavior was important to success. But in this first study, the researchers paired the elephants, so they couldn’t choose their mates.

In the new study, published on September 28 in the journal PLoS Biology, the international research team went further, offering a group of nine elephants free access to the testing table – making the decision to choose teammates and figure out how to cooperate with the animals themselves. They found that cooperation was maintained at a high rate (over 80% of the time) even in the face of competition, and only collapsed when food on the table was limited and could easily be monopolized.

The complexity of cooperation, especially in an experimental task, is rarely studied outside of primates or birds, the researchers said. The elephants in the study were part of the Myaing Hay Wun elephant camp in Taikkyi, Yangon, Myanmar, all belonging to the Myanma Timber Enterprise. When logging was banned in Myanmar in 2016, these creatures withdrew from their jobs and were placed in the care of an elephant handler who works full time bathing and watching each elephant. The surrounding forests are also home to wild elephants. Retired and semi-wild elephants sometimes intermingle with them.

Retired elephants were subjected to a classic teamwork task, which was first developed in the 1930s and has been tested on species ranging from otters to macaques. Elephants had to pull both ends of the same rope to access trays of bananas or tamarind balls.

In the first part of the study, there were two trays, so that both partners could feast. But in the second part of the study, there was only one tray of tasty treats – so a partner could monopolize the food. That’s when the competition got fiercer, more intense, Li says, with more fights and more monopolization of treats. The allegiance quickly collapsed from there.

Similar breaks in cooperation occur in other species, including humans, when the benefits are reduced, said Alicia Melis, an experimental psychologist at University College London in the UK who was not involved in the ‘study. She pointed out that there are several types of cooperation: one type is one where both parties benefit, as in this teamwork exercise, and another, more altruistic, is one where one party immediately benefits and the other help simply for potential future benefits. .

Melis has worked on similar experiments in bonobos and chimpanzees, and she said the results from the elephants are not very surprising: it could be that some higher-ranking individuals monopolize the food consumption.

The problem with cooperation is the cheaters, she said. Recognizing the contributions of others to the collaborative effort by rewarding them with a portion of the loot is essential to keeping collaborators motivated long term – and something that thrives in children around age 3. Cheaters, those who plunder the loot without collaborating, undermine this delicate balance.

“Other species, like the elephants here, or the chimps in our studies, seem a bit more limited in this regard,” Melis said. “The most dominant individuals monopolize food, not rewarding partners, which leads to breakdown of cooperation. However, if the potential for monopolization is reduced by placing food rewards far from each other, they successfully coordinate their actions.”

Li said she learned that elephants have individual personalities and temperaments – and their own ways of dealing with others. Knowing about individuals and their personalities can aid in the conservation of Asian elephants in China, where there are only around 300 of them, and where she assesses protected areas. Li said that when developing strategies to protect them, it helps to know whether a group of elephants is a family or a loose herd of single males. “Different elephants have different types of culture, as well as personalities.”

Inside science is a not-for-profit print, electronic, and video journalism news service owned and operated by the American Institute of Physics.

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