Elephant learnCan elephants learn by observing and imitating others?

Elephants love to eat bananas and enjoy whole ones whenever they can. But Pang Fa, a 36-year-old Asian elephant who lives at the Berlin Zoo, is a little more precious: she happens to prefer her bananas peeled.

Growing up, Fa was under the care of a careful caretaker who peeled her bananas for her. Now she seems to have learned to break the banana at its stem and twist the inside of the fruit from its skin, discarding the latter and enjoying only the pulp.

Pha’s history is detailed in a recent elephant research in current biology, suggesting that her behavior may be an example of an animal learning by copying the behavior of someone else—in this case, her caretaker. However, some critics argue that this is simply an example of learning by trial and error.

Either way, Pha’s experience has reignited discussions about whether or not elephants can learn by observing others—and what we know about their potential for mimicry.

How Pang Pha learned to peel bananas

Pha not only learned to peel bananas herself; she also peeled them with extraordinary dexterity, the study author says Michael Brechta professor at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin who studies the trunk-grasping behavior of elephants.

“She developed a very impressive peeling algorithm, you know, she’s faster than humans, about three times faster,” says Brecht. “And that’s quite a thing, because we have two hands, right? She only has one trunk.

Pha is far from the only elephant to ever peel bananas. But while there are other examples, Brecht says, this really seems to be a pretty rare behavior. Although there is no solid proof that she learned to peel her bananas through observation, the evidence is indeed “very strong” for it, he adds, arguing that it is an example of learned behavior dependent on experience.

But it’s not like observational learning is “spreading like wildfire” among elephants, Brecht says. It’s just that people copy like crazy, he adds.

Is elephant behavior really mimicry?

Moti Nissani, professor emeritus of interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University in Michigan, who has researched elephant cognitionargues that Pang’s companions must also learn this trick if her banana peeling is an example of mimicry.

“It’s entirely possible that at one point or another, Pang Fa wasn’t that hungry and was randomly playing with a banana and accidentally peeled it,” Nisani says. “Peeled bananas are obviously much better, as we know ourselves, than whole bananas, so she gradually learned the trick.”

This observation is suggestive, but far from support for mimicry or implied theory of mind as an explanatory mechanism, he says. (Similar to the case of a Japanese macaque monkey named Imo, who wash your potatoes in the nearby river to get them out of the sand.) Behaviors like these raise the possibility that whatever mimicry occurs in this species is based not on a theory of mind but on a process more akin to trial-and-error learning.

Can elephants learn by observing and imitating others?

It’s certainly possible that Pang Fa learned to peel the banana herself, says Joshua Plotnick, a comparative psychologist at Hunter College, CUNY in New York. But in general, yes, elephants learn from others in society.

“This is a common way that social animals learn from others in their social group,” says Plotnick. “A lot of that learning is from observing others.”

Elephants can even imitate humans in other ways. Although there isn’t much experimental work on social learning in elephants, Plotnick points to a 2012 study as an example of vocal training in elephants, in which researchers documented an elephant living in a zoo in South Korea that learned to imitate human speech. And more than a decade ago, a study published in Nature in 2005 describes how African savannah elephants are capable of vocal training, paving the way for research in this area.

Read more: Elephants now congregate in human-dominated areas

Do elephants learn through mimicry?

Still, the debate is far from over. According to Professor Richard William Byrne, who studies the evolution of cognitive and social behavior at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Pang Fa would have naturally discovered how to peel her bananas through research. What’s more, it’s no surprise that a fairly intelligent animal like the elephant learns things this way.

In fact, there are many reasons to think that elephants can (and do) learn socially, gaining knowledge from being in a social environment. But since direct evidence for this is pretty scarce, it’s really hard for scientists to know for sure.

Much of our lack of knowledge about elephant cognition is due to how difficult it is to study elephants in the first place, Byrne says. Because of how gigantic they are—and how miserable they tend to be when confined—elephants are much more difficult to study than, say, a chimpanzee in a zoo or a rat in a lab.

“But we don’t really know much about what they learn through observation,” Byrne adds, and observational learning is one of the hardest things to study. At the very least, he continues, we know that elephants are sensitive to the people around them.

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