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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 5

Animals Show Off Their Social Genius

New research reveals that animals interact in surprisingly sophisticated ways

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At the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, tucked away in the trees near Chiang Mai, a pair of Asian elephants gazes at two bowls of corn on the other side of a net. The corn is attached to a sliding platform, through which researchers have threaded a rope. The rope's ends lie on the elephants' side of the net. If only one elephant pulls an end, the rope slides out of the contraption. To bring the food within trunk's reach, the elephants have to do something only humans and other primates were thought to do: they must cooperate. Working in synchrony, each elephant grabs its end of the rope in its trunk and pulls, drawing the platform and the treats within reach.

Six pairs of these large animals succeeded in solving this double rope puzzle. A lone elephant would wait as long as 45 seconds for a partner to arrive, showing it knew it needed a buddy to get the job done. Psychologist Joshua M. Plotnik of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues, who documented these findings in 2011, also noticed that the elephant duos used different strategies for obtaining the food, suggesting that the animals had developed a deep understanding of social cooperation.

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