by: palantir

Tue Aug 23, 2011 at 22:49:42 PM EDT

Eureka (pronounced /jʊˈriːkə/) is an interjection used to celebrate a discovery, a transliteration of a word attributed to Archimedes.Wiki

The classic story about Archimedes' tells of the time he realized the solution to a particularly intractable problem as he stepped into his bath. As his foot and leg dropped into the water he realized the water rose by an amount proportional to the volume displaced by his leg, that is the volume of water pushed aside was precisely the volume of his leg. This allowed him to determine whether the votive crown commisioned by Hiero II of Syracuse had been adulterated by the smith who created the crown.

We've all experienced such insightful moments and I do believe most of us have refrained from running through the streets naked proclaiming our epiphany to the people of Syracuse. It turns out, however, that human beings are not the only species to experience sudden insight. A paper published by researchers from The City University of New York, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and Hunter College adds a new species to the list of animals that have demonstrated insightful problem solving.

The “aha” moment or the sudden arrival of the solution to a problem is a common human experience. Spontaneous problem solving without evident trial and error behavior in humans and other animals has been referred to as insight. Surprisingly, elephants, thought to be highly intelligent, have failed to exhibit insightful problem solving in previous cognitive studies. We tested whether three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) would use sticks or other objects to obtain food items placed out-of-reach and overhead. Without prior trial and error behavior, a 7-year-old male Asian elephant showed spontaneous problem solving by moving a large plastic cube, on which he then stood, to acquire the food. In further testing he showed behavioral flexibility, using this technique to reach other items and retrieving the cube from various locations to use as a tool to acquire food. In the cube's absence, he generalized this tool utilization technique to other objects and, when given smaller objects, stacked them in an attempt to reach the food. The elephant's overall behavior was consistent with the definition of insightful problem solving. Previous failures to demonstrate this ability in elephants may have resulted not from a lack of cognitive ability but from the presentation of tasks requiring trunk-held sticks as potential tools, thereby interfering with the trunk's use as a sensory organ to locate the targeted food.12

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Kandula Reaching for the Sky
palantir :: Eureka!

Researchers Preston Foerder, Marie Galloway, Tony Barthel, Donald E. Moore III, Diana Reiss studied the cognitive abilities of 3 housed at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park—a 33 year-old (Shanthi) and a 61 year-old (Ambika) pair of females and a 7 year-old juvenile adult male (Kandula).

From the authors paper Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant

Elephants have large complex brains [1], exhibit complex social behavior [2], show a facility with tools [3], and are generally thought to be highly intelligent [4]. Cognitive studies have demonstrated that elephants are capable of visual symbol discrimination and long term memory [5], means-end recognition [6], relative quantity judgment [7], mirror self-recognition [8], tool use [3], tool manufacture [9], and an understanding of cooperation [10].12

Studies of other animals, such as chimpanzees and birds have shown those critters to possess spontaneous problem solving skills. Reports and studies, at least until this one, have, despite the many other documented cognitive abilities demonstrated in both captivity and in the wild, have not shown elephants as insightful problem solvers.

In order to test the hypothesis that, considering their already demonstrated cognitive abilities, elephants should be able to demonstrate spontaneous or insightful problem solving skills the researchers designed a series of experiments that would elicit just such a behavior.

All three elephants were subjects of the first experiment. Subsequent experiments only included Kandula (the young male).


A 7.62 m cable was run from the roof of the elephant house to a tree in the yard. The height of the cable was 6.25 m above the ground at its center. A movable shuttle attached to a rope pulley was positioned on the cable. Lengths of leafy bamboo with fruit attached at the bottom were hung from the shuttle by a trimmed branch so that they could be pulled or knocked off. Fruit was attached to the bamboo by impaling it on branches with leaves. Fruit is a preferred food and each length of bamboo had three pieces of fruit that was varied among melons (cantaloupe or honeydew), apples, bananas, and oranges.

In the yard were placed four 1.80 m lengths of bamboo sticks, two leaning against the tree and two on the ground beneath the food. In addition, Ambika and Shanthi were given an elephant “tub,” a round aluminum stand 0.61 m tall and 0.75 m in diameter. Kandula was given a 0.61 m plastic cube that supported his weight. Neither of these items were novel. Ambika and Shanthi had been previously trained to stand on the tub (see Table S2.). Kandula had previous experience with the cube as an enrichment toy. Different items were used because 1) the cube might not support the weight of the larger elephants and 2) Kandula, being more playful, might pick up the metal tub and throw it, creating dangerous containment issues. The platforms were placed approximately 1.80–3.66 m from the food placement. Exact distance and position varied.12

In the first experiment all 3 elephants demonstrated interest in the food hung above the compound. The females, Shanthi and Ambika failed to use the tools provided (sticks and the aluminum tub). Kandula did, however, demonstrate an 'aha' moment.

For several sessions, Kandula just stared at the hanging fruit, ignoring the stick as well as the cube that was nearby.

"He did not attempt to use a tool to reach the food for seven 20-minute sessions on seven different days," Hunter College's Reiss said.

"And then he finally had what looked to be this sudden revelation, and he headed right over to the block, pushed it in a direct line right underneath the fruit, and stepped right up on it and got the food in one swift movement.11

This video shows the elephant's first use of the cube as a tool to acquire food.

The next day, in session 8, approximately two minutes after the placement of the first unreachable branch, Kandula rolled the cube to the food area, stood on it, and obtained the food in the same manner as in the previous session. In addition to using the cube for food acquisition, he moved the cube and stood on it to explore the interior of an enrichment object affixed to a tree near the food site. At the session's end, he also rolled the cube to the yard's periphery and stood on it to reach for blossoms on an overhanging tree branch. During this session, he used the cube as a tool to obtain food or other objects a total of 9 times, rolling the cube from 2–10 turns in each effort.12

The second set of trials tested tood displacement. The researchers moved and even hid the plastic cube about the enclosure to see if Kandula would find and again use it to acquire the food. Kandula had no problem finding the plastic cube to reach the fruit.

This video shows the elephant retrieving the cube from a non-visible placement during the second session in which the
cube was placed in this position.

The third experiment wanted to see if Kandula could generalize his solution to another tool. Result: he did.

This video shows the elephant employing a tire as a tool to obtain food.

In the fourth and final experiment, the cube and tire was replaced by butcher blocks in an attempt to see if Kandula would stack at least 3 of the blocks in order to reach the prize. Kandula only managed to stack 2 of the butcher blocks which left him inches short of the food. He did, however, solve the problem in an unexpected manner. He used a large ball —a toy Kandula is quite familiar with, by the way (see the bonus video in the tip jar)—that the keepers placed in the yard as an enrichment item to balance on. Smart little elephant he.

This video shows the elephant stacking two blocks
in an attempt to acquire food.

The researchers were, at first, puzzled that the elephants hadn't used the sticks provided to reach the fruit. They realized (perhaps in their own eureka moment) that for elephants, who've demonstrated using sticks in other situations (back scratching, for example), using a stick in these tests would be an unnatural behavior.

because the mammals rely heavily on the trunks' sense of smell and touch when seeking out food. Holding anything in their trunks would prevent them from effectively feeling and sniffing out dinner, the researchers say.11

As noted, the older female elephants failed to solve the problem while Kandula in each case found an item to stand on to reach the fruit. "Perhaps they didn't care enough to try to get the fruit, or it could have been age-related,"11 Dr. Reiss of Hunter College suggests.

Kandula, on the other hand is inquisitive and intelligent according to Don Moore.

"Among the smart elephants—and all elephants are smart ... we think Kandula is one of the smarter ones," said Moore, associate director for animal-care sciences at the National Zoo.

Moore said he hopes the discovery will help raise awareness about the plight of Asian elephants, which are endangered.

"Studies like this can help people relate more closely to animals because it makes them more like us," he said. "If we can empathize with animals, we are more likely to help conserve them."11

This is fascinating science. It shows that we puny humans are not so substantially different from many of the other animals on this planet. Eventually, one hopes, the Golden Rule's "do unto others" will not, by default, exclude our non-human neighbors.


  1. Shoshani J, Kupsky WJ, Marchant GH (2006) Elephant brain: Part I: Gross morphology, functions, comparative anatomy, and evolution. pp. 124–157. Brain Research Bulletin.
  2. Poole J, Moss C (2008) Elephant sociality and complexity: The scientific evidence. In: Wemmer C, Christen K, editors. Elephants and Ethics: Toward a Morality of Coexistence. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. pp. 69–98.
  3. Chevalier-Skolnikoff S, Liska J (1993) Tool use by wild and captive elephants. Animal Behaviour 46: 209–219.
  4. Byrne RW, Bates LA, Moss CJ (2009) Elephant cognition in primate perspective. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews 4: 65–79.
  5. Rensch B (1957) The intelligence of elephants. Scientific American 196: 44–49.
  6. Irie-Sugimoto N, Kobayashi T, Sato T, Hasegawa T (2008) Evidence of means-end behavior in Asian elephants ( Elephas maximus). Animal Cognition 11: 359–365.
  7. Irie-Sugimoto N, Kobayashi T, Sato T, Hasegawa T (2009) Relative quantity judgment by Asian elephants ( Elephas maximus ). Animal Cognition 12: 193–199.
  8. Plotnik JM, de Waal FBM, Reiss D (2006) Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103: 17053–17057.
  9. Hart BL, Hart LA, McCoy M (2001) Cognitive behaviour in Asian elephants: use and modification of branches for fly switching. Animal Behaviour 62: 839–847.
  10. Plotnik JM, Lair R, Suphachoksahakun W, de Waal FBM (2011) Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108: 5116–5121.


  1. Elephant Makes a Stool—First Known Aha Moment for Species
  2. Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant
  3. Meet the Zoo's Asian Elephants

Thank you for taking the time on this beautiful Sunday morning to read today's article. I look forward to your comments

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Eureka! | 5 comments
I hope you like (12.00 / 3)
It's been a while since I posted.  

hi there palantir... (13.50 / 2)
it's nice to see you.

it's also wonderful that your diaries are getting a bit of a wider audience at dKos, i've noticed. good when good stuff gets people's interest and perhaps your stories will help give people a broader view of the world and beyond.

i've read lately about the sun's polar shift and possible impact on earth... one can't help but think that so much of the universe is one violent process after another and that we are made of such stuff...

maybe our violence comes to us naturally and for a reason: it's a built in expiration date. at some point we will just explode ourselves away.

simplify... writing in the rAw

Solar polar shifts are fairly regular occurrences (10.00 / 1)
I don't think there's much to worry about.  

[ Parent ]
and (13.00 / 2)
elephants, along with dolphins and dogs/wolves, are my favorite animals.

well, i also love ducks, must say.


simplify... writing in the rAw

nice post (0.00 / 0)
Such a kind of article is really awesome,I daily read your blogs and give my notice for that here this article is too great and so interesting.YuanDao N90 S

Eureka! | 5 comments
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