A recent study found that elephants tend to blow air through their trunks to grab treats that are hard to reach.
For the study – published in the online journal Animal Cognition – the researchers observed two female elephants, Suzuko and Mineko, at Kamine Zoo in Japan. They saw that when food was too far for the elephants to grab with their trunks, the animals would blow air at it to bring it closer.
A team of researchers at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI) and at Kyoto University (both in Japan) placed various foods – like leaves, hay, potatoes, apples and bamboo – around the elephants’ enclosure.
For over 32 days, the researchers filmed the elephants and also tracked the movement of the food pieces. They split the 32 days into 128 trials – each trial lasted from when an elephant started blowing air at a piece of food, to when the animal managed to retrieve the treat or just gave up on trying to get to the food.
The team looked at the durations and frequency of the blowing, at how often the elephants were able to successfully reach the food, and at the position of their trunks.
The results showed that when the food was easy to reach, the elephants were less likely to blow air from their trunks. Moreover, to reach faraway foods, they had to blow air about three times (on average), the researchers found.
Mineko, the dominant female, was better at blowing the air towards the food in order to push it in the right direction, compared with Suzuko who was not as skilled at this behaviour. Kaori Mizuno, of the Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies, stated that Mineko knew that blowing air on the far side of the food would get the food closer to her.
According to the researchers, the technique of blowing air to reach faraway food could be compared with the use of tools among otters – they smash open molluscs using stones – and chimpanzees – they use sticks to catch ants.
A 1993 study published in journal Animal Behavior, found that Asian and African elephants grasped branches with their trunks and then used them to swat away flies. According to the study, this type of behaviour shows that animals have the ability to understand the effect of an object’s use. Mizuno said that it demonstrates an advanced way of thinking.
Joyce Poole, author of the book “Coming of Age with Elephants: A Memoir”, said that elephants – just like humans – learn behaviours from their family as they grow up.
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