Elephants are smart, social animals. And now we know that they can organize themselves into teams to accomplish tasks.
A research team that included renowned primatologist Franz de Waal taught 12 Thai elephants—who already work with human trainers called mahouts—to get a bowl of food by pulling a rope attached to an out-of-reach table.
Then the scientists threaded the rope so that it would take two elephants, pulling both ends at the same time, to move the table. If one yanked an end without its helpmate doing so, no reward.
The pachyderms were paired up. Only if they pulled together could they get the food. The elephants tried the task when they were released simultaneously or at staggered times. Even when the release was staggered, an elephant quickly learned that it had to wait for its partner to come and cooperate to get the food. This finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Joshua Plotnik et al., "Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task"] Elephants are thus on par with apes for fast learning of deliberate cooperation with a partner.
When grouped, individuals also remembered which of the others was their task partner. Because an elephant never forgets…who helped it rope a meal.
[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]