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Wild Asian elephants exhibit strong capacity for innovation

The capacity for individual innovation is often seen as a marker of intelligence across species, with elephants being a focal point of such studies due to their nuanced problem-solving skills. 

A new study led by the City University of New York (CUNY) has reported the findings of a six-month investigation, shedding light on the capabilities of individual wild Asian elephants in securing food by solving puzzles that unlock storage boxes.

Capacity to adapt

“An animal’s capacity for innovation or solving novel problems likely has important implications for how quickly they can adapt to environmental change. Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, living in zoos have previously demonstrated a capacity to innovate, but problem solving has never been studied experimentally in a wild elephant population,” the authors explained.

“This is the first research study to show that individual wild elephants have different willingness and abilities to problem solve in order to get food,” said lead author Sarah Jacobson, a doctoral student in Animal Cognition at CUNY. 

“This is important knowledge, because how animals think and innovate may influence their ability to survive in environments that are rapidly changing due to human presence.”

Focus of the study

This study was carried out at the Salakpra Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, utilizing motion-activated cameras to monitor 77 wild Asian elephants as they decided whether to engage with puzzle boxes containing aromatic jackfruit within three uniquely configured compartments. 

The methods of access varied: elephants could pull on a chain, push a door, or slide a door open, each method requiring a different approach. The elephants were left to interact with the puzzle boxes autonomously to learn the unlocking mechanisms.

What the researchers learned 

Out of the elephants observed, 44 decided to engage with the boxes, showing varying levels of innovative interactions. 

The experts found that elephants which engaged more frequently and persistently with the boxes had higher success rates in accessing food from all the differently configured compartments. 

In the end, 11 elephants managed to solve one type of compartment, eight cracked two types, and five elephants showcased the highest level of innovation by solving all three.

Study implications 

“Conflict involving humans and elephants is increasing due to loss of natural habitat and agricultural encroachment into what is left of it,” said senior author Joshua Plotnik, a professor of Psychology at CUNY.

“Investigating innovation and problem solving in elephants can inform our understanding of wild elephant cognitive flexibility and its potential impact on conservation management and human-elephant conflict mitigation,” he concluded.

More about elephant innovation

Elephants are remarkable animals, known for their intelligence and complex social behaviors. As mentioned by the CUNY team, their “innovations” are more about adapting and evolving to their environment over time, rather than inventing or creating new tools or technologies. 

Social structures

Elephants have intricate social structures, which they use to manage group dynamics, support each other, and protect young members.


They use a variety of vocalizations and even subsonic rumbles that can travel long distances to communicate with one another.


Known for their excellent memory, elephants can remember the locations of water sources over vast distances and recall these during dry seasons.

Problem-solving abilities

Elephants are known to work together to solve problems. For example, they might coordinate efforts to move obstacles or assist a member in distress.

Empathy and mourning 

Elephants display empathetic behaviors and even engage in rituals that resemble mourning when a member of their group dies.

Use of tools

While not as advanced as some species, elephants do use basic tools. They might use branches to swat flies, or utilize their trunks in sophisticated ways to gather food, drink water, or give themselves dust or mud baths for skin protection.

Learning and imitation

They have the ability to learn new behaviors, both from other elephants and through direct experience. They can also imitate sounds and behaviors.

While these may not be “innovations” in the human sense, these adaptations and evolved behaviors highlight the intelligence and complexity of elephants as a species.

The study is published in the journal Animal Behavior.

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