Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 6, pp 907–915 | Cite as

The use of a human’s location and social cues by Asian elephants in an object-choice task

  • Oraya Ketchaisri
  • Chomcheun Siripunkaw
  • Joshua M. PlotnikEmail author
Original Paper


Asian elephants have previously demonstrated an ability to follow olfactory cues, but not human-provided social cues like pointing and gazing or orienting to find hidden food (Plotnik et al. in PLoS One 8:e61174, 2013; Anim Behav 88:91–98, 2014). In a study conducted with African elephants, however, elephants were able to follow a combination of these social cues to find food, even when the experimenter’s position was counter to the location of the food. The authors of the latter study argued that the differences in the two species’ performances might have been due to methodological differences in the study designs (Smet and Byrne in Curr Biol 23(20):2033–2037, 2013). To further investigate the reasons for these potential differences, we partially adapted Smet and Byrne (2013)’s design for a group of Asian elephants in Thailand. In a two-object-choice task in which only one of two buckets was baited with food, we found that, as a group, the elephants did not follow cues provided by an experimenter when she was positioned either equidistant between the buckets or closer to the incorrect bucket when providing the cues. The elephants did, however, follow cues when the experimenter was closer to the correct bucket. In addition, there was individual variability in the elephants’ performance within and across experimental conditions. This indicates that in general, for Asian elephants, the pointing and/or gazing cues alone may not be salient enough; local enhancement in the form of the experimenter’s position in relation to the food reward may represent a crucial, complementary cue. These results suggest that the variability within and between the species in their performance on these tasks could be due to a number of factors, including methodology, the elephants’ experiences with their handlers, ecological differences in how Asian and African elephants use non-visual sensory information to find food in the wild, or some combination of the three.


Asian elephants Cognition Object-choice Visual cues Elephant behavior 



We thank the mahouts, staff and volunteers at Elephants World in Kanchanaburi, Thailand for their assistance with this study. We also thank the faculty and students of the Conservation Biology Program at Mahidol University’s Kanchanaburi Campus for their support. Finally, we appreciate the comments of anonymous reviewers that helped improve an earlier version of this manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

JP is the founder of Think Elephants International, a US public charity that focuses on elephant conservation. CS is co-founder of the Banana Orchard Project in Kanchanaburi, an ecotourism venture for captive elephants in Thailand. CS’s involvement in the latter project did not begin until after the current study was completed.

Ethical statement

All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Supplementary material

10071_2019_1283_MOESM1_ESM.mp4 (1.3 mb)
Movie 1. As an example of the general experimental setup, this movie shows a single trial of pointing + gazing from experiment 1. The elephant, Nimochi, chose incorrectly in this trial. (MP4 1320 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Conservation Biology ProgramMahidol University, Kanchanaburi CampusLum Sum, Sai Yok, Kanchanaburi 71150Thailand
  2. 2.Department of Psychology, Hunter CollegeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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