The adaptive value of age, co-operation (and secret signals)

More elephant based news!

A new study from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published today, has found that elephants pay attention to the oldest female elephant in their group when a predator is approaching.

The research, carried out in Kenya, used recordings of roars from both male and female lions and monitored the reactions of groups of African Elephants. It has been known for a long time that elephants social groups are formed around a matriarchy. The experiment found that groups of elephants with matriarchs quickly organised themselves into defensive bunch formations after appearing to stop and pay attention to their female leader. These groups were also much more likely to approach the loud speaker producing the roar in an aggressive manner.

Male lions present a greater threat to groups of elephants as they are much more likely to attack elephants when alone and are usually much more successful than females who will only attack when part of a group. The elephants showed an ability to differentiate between male and female lions. The study also showed that matriarchs who were much older were much more likely to react in the appropriate way to roars made by male lions which is thought to be the result of experience.

The signals which allow the Matriarch to elicit this co-ordination among her group are still largely unknown due to the lack of loud vocalisations and Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon, who lead the initial study, are now looking into finding quieter, less obvious vocalisations and posture cues.

The study provides the first empirical evidence that within a social group, individuals may gain benefits from paying attention to an older leader because of their abilities in making decisions when under threat. This generates insights into selection for longevity in cognitively advanced social mammals.

Elephants give each other a helping trunk

A study published on yesterday has shown that elephants might have shared goals which gives them the ability to co-operate.

An experiment was done using the classical 1930s cooperation paradigm used to test the co-operative abilities of monkeys and apes. This paradigm is used to explore the cognition underlying coordination toward a shared goal. This explores what animals know or learn about the benefits of cooperation and also tests their ability to comprehend a partner’s role in cooperation.

The experiment comprises of 2 animals who need to work together to pull 2 ends of the same rope in order to pull a platform towards them which holds a reward such as food.

Experiments such as this have never been done on animals apart from primates before. Plotnik et al. (2011) subjected this experimental paradigm to elephants and have shown that elephants can learn to coordinate with a partner. The elephants also delayed pulling he rope for up to 45 seconds if the arrival of their partner was delayed which showed that they comprehended that there was no point to pulling on the rope if their partner lacked access to the rope. The elephants learnt that this was the case much more quickly than has been shown in Chimpanzees in other studies.

Observations from the wild suggest that in nonhuman primates these co-operative abilities exist but experimental results have been mixed. Plotnik et al. (2011) claim that convergent evolution may have lead elephants to have reached a level of cooperative skill equal to that of chimpanzees.

You can see a video of the elephants doing the experiment here:


Plotnik, J. M., R. Lair, w. Suphachoksahakun & F. B. M. de Waal (2011)
Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. PNAS 2011 : 1101765108v1-201101765.