Sunday, 8 November 2015

Elephants may use trunks like 'leaf blowers' to obtain inaccessible food

Date:  November 5, 2015
Source:  BioMed Central

Two captive elephants blast air through their trunks to grasp hard-to-reach food, suggests an initial study published today in Springer's journal Animal Cognition. This behaviour, studied in a zoo population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), is altered according to the distance to the food, which may indicate advanced mental ability and awareness of their physical environment.

Previous observations, including by Charles Darwin, have suggested that elephants may manipulate their breath to reach inaccessible food, but there has been limited opportunity to test this behaviour in an experimental setting. To investigate whether elephants use this behaviour to achieve goals, scientists from SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for advanced studies) and Kyoto University studied two female captive elephants, Mineko and Suzuko, at Kamine Zoo in Japan. They predicted that the further away a piece of food was, the more frequently the elephants would blast it with air to bring it near to them.

To test this theory, the team of researchers digitally mapped out a grid in a ditch in the elephants' enclosure, placed food in various locations on the 'virtual' grid, and filmed the elephants trying to reach it. They used five different types of food: apple, bamboo, hay, fallen leaves and potatoes. The researchers recorded the elephants' behaviour over 32 days, spilt into 128 trials; a trial began when it was audible that the elephants had started blowing and finished when they grasped the food or gave up. They then analysed the frequency and duration of blowing, the position and shape of the elephants' trunks, and their success and skill by tracking the movement of food across the grid.

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