Elephants are clever problem solvers — and they have distinct personalities, too

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Credit: Hoi-Lam Jim
Credit: Hoi-Lam Jim

Just as humans have their own individual personalities, new research in the Journal of Comparative Psychology shows that elephants have personalities, too. Moreover, an elephant’s personality may play an important role in how well that elephant can solve novel problems.

The authors developed novel object tests, in which they presented the elephants with an unfamiliar object, a mylar balloon, a burned log and the scent of a predator (lion or hyena), and recorded the elephants’ responses. You can watch videos of the novel object trials: balloonburned log and urine. They also asked elephant caretakers to fill out a survey about the personalities of the animals in their care; and, finally, they observed the elephants interacting with one another in their zoo habitats.

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Traits including aggressiveness and activity were important predictors of problem-solving overall, but the personality traits measured did not significantly predict learning ability.

This study makes connections between two sources of individual variation, personality and cognition, in threatened species. One reason it is important to examine problem-solving in elephants is that they are faced with new problems that they need to solve regularly in the wild.

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