In experiments at a Thai refuge, paired elephants quickly figured out that they could reach bowls of treats only if they worked together. When one partner yanked on a rope, the treats bowls remained out of reach. When both partners pulled on the rope simultaneously, the bowls moved close enough for the animals to help themselves.
Cooperation itself is not rare in the animal kingdom -- think of honey bees. But the ability to learn a new cooperative task and understand its workings is extremely rare. In similar studies, only chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and a few other species show the ability to recognize when they need to cooperate and how. Now, elephants have joined that elite club.
"I was surprised that they learned so quickly," lead scientist Joshua Plotnik, now of the U.K.'s University of Cambridge, told AOL News. "The elephants were all stars." His study appears in Tuesday's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In an earlier study, Plotnik and his colleagues discovered that elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors, a feat accomplished by only the most sophisticated beasts. So the scientists decided to test elephants' abilities in another challenging task: learning to cooperate.
The researchers built a table that held two bowlfuls of corn on the cob, which elephants love. A rope attached to the table was strung in such a way that each of its ends could be grabbed by an elephant standing behind a barrier. If just one end of the rope was pulled, the other end slid out of reach, and the table didn't budge. If both ends of the rope were pulled, the table moved forward.
The paired elephants easily learned to tug in sync to get the corn. Before pulling, they waited for their partners to grab the rope. And when their partners couldn't reach the rope, they generally didn't bother to pull on their own ends.
The study is "quite convincing," said Ronald Noe of University of Strasbourg, who has studied animal cooperation. He was impressed by the study, but not particularly surprised by the results. He recalled that during a research trip he made to , a wild elephant stood right behind a group of scientists to look at the computer they were using.
And at least one of the Thai study participants demonstrated just how crafty elephants can be. A 5-year-old female named Neua figured out that if she put her foot on her end of the rope, she still got the treats -- and her partner had to do all the work of dragging the table.
Outsmarted, the scientists had to exclude their clever pupil from some parts of their experiment.
"She definitely surprised us," Plotnik said.