Japanese scientists from Kyoto University and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI) have published a study in the journal Animal Cognition suggesting that elephants are capable of reaching far-off food by blowing air with their long trunks.
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To this extent, the amount of air blown through their trunks is relative to the distance of the food, suggesting that elephants possess cognitive skills to use air as tools, even as they become more aware of their environments.
A group of Asian elephants at the Kamine zoo in Japan was studied, and chief among this were Mineko and Suzuko, two female elephants captive at the zoo.
Charles Darwin several years ago observed that elephants are capable of manipulating their breath to reach food, but this could not be experimented in a natural setting, until the Japanese scientists were able to do something about it.
The scientists mapped out a grid within a ditch at the mini zoo, then placed foods such as apple, hay, potatoes, bamboo, and fallen leaves in various points of the enclosure. Using video technology mounted over 32 days, the researchers were able to watch the animals as they blew air to shift the position of the desired food nearer to where their trunk would reach.
The scientists were able to analyze the frequency and duration of blowing, the position and shape of the elephants' trunks, and their success and skill by tracking the movement of food across the grid. The animals blew three times on average to reach their food, and it was apparent they would not blow air for near and accessible food.
"By blowing air through their trunks to obtain inaccessible food, the elephants appear to exhibit an advanced understanding of their physical environment,” lead author, Kaori Mizuno, said. “Their skills to manipulate air might be related to those elephants commonly use, such as blowing for self-comfort and acoustic communication."
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The researchers are of the opinion that since elephants use their breath as a form of “tool” to reach inaccessible food, just as chimps use sticks to catch ants, that it is high time a more robust definition of a “tool” is given to accommodate the psychological process behind problem-solving behavior, rather than the use of a physical object.