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Elephants Think with Their Nose

elephant nose.jpeg

Elephants just got smarter -- in our estimation, not theirs. That's because scientists had assumed that they rely on sight and sound to solve puzzles. Human-designed intelligence tests for elephants have made them look a bit dull compared to dogs, chimpanzees and birds. But the mistake was ours.

National Geographic now reports that smell appears to be the primary input to their problem-solving ability. When presented visually with pails empty and full of food, elephants didn't perform so well, even when the pails were shaken -- unless they were allowed to smell them first. When a third "mystery bucket" was presented, they always rejected the empty one. "This suggests that elephants are using smell as part of their decision-making process," the article states.

"For too long, we have tested all sorts of animals on stimuli that we, humans, find most salient," explains primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta. "We thus stack the deck against animals that differ from ourselves, and sometimes conclude from negative results that they are dumber than us."

This means that future studies of animal behavior ought to focus more on discovering each animal's special abilities before anything else. (Emphasis added.)

Another evolutionary psychologist noted that the experiments show some animal intelligence tests are too primate-centric. "If we really want to understand elephant cognition, we need to start thinking outside the visual-auditory box," she said.

What broader lesson might we draw from this study? For one, just because we don't understand a design doesn't mean design isn't present. Some modern art looks chaotic to the untrained eye. Elephants might appear dumb unless we learn to think outside the box and experience the world the way they do. Another ever-present moral is that scientific conclusions are only tentative. Tomorrow's findings might overturn today's consensus.

Finally, each animal is marvelously equipped for its needs better than we know. The story helps us appreciate even more the design of elephants. Their sense of smell is phenomenal, packed into a flexible trunk so well designed that engineers at the Biomimicry Institute are trying to imitate it.