Here is a short video of an elephant tasked with solving the simple problem of how to drag a piece of what looks like canvas to a human handler:
The most important thing to take away from this video is probably the fact that the elephant in question is good and smart and cool. Also important, though — and it’s subtle — is the way it steps aside to prevent its own weight from getting in the way of completing the task.
That’s a big deal, argue the researchers who ran this experiment, Rachel Dale and Joshua M. Plotnik. As they argue in a new study just published in Scientific Reports, this task demonstrates that elephants, or any other type of animal, are capable of a certain type of complex thought.
As the accompanying press release explains, “Self-awareness in both animals and young children is usually tested using the ‘mirror self-recognition test’ to see if they understand that the reflection in front of them is actually their own. Only a few species have so far shown themselves capable of self-recognition — great apes, dolphins, magpies, and elephants. It is thought to be linked to more complex forms of perspective-taking and empathy.”
Some critics believe self-recognition can only tell us so much about another being’s cognition — so the test completed by the elephant, known as a body-awareness test, has been proposed a complement. A body-awareness test, the thinking goes, “could demonstrate an individual’s understanding of its body in relation to its physical environment, which may be easier to define than the distinction between oneself and another demonstrated through success at the mirror test.”
It will be interesting to see how other animals fare at this test, of course. But in the meantime, this is yet more evidence that everyone should be staunchly pro-elephant.