Animal Cognition

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 459–469 | Cite as

Social learning in captive African elephants (Loxodonta africana africana)

  • Brian J. GrecoEmail author
  • Tracey K. Brown
  • Jeff R. M. Andrews
  • Ronald R. Swaisgood
  • Nancy G. Caine
Original Paper


Social learning is a more efficient method of information acquisition and application than trial and error learning and is prevalent across a variety of animal taxa. Social learning is assumed to be important for elephants, but evidence in support of that claim is mostly anecdotal. Using a herd of six adult female African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana africana) at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, we evaluated whether viewing a conspecific’s interactions facilitated learning of a novel task. The tasks used feeding apparatus that could be solved in one of two distinct ways. Contrary to our hypothesis, the method the demonstrating animal used did not predict the method used by the observer. However, we did find evidence of social learning: After watching the model, subjects spent a greater percentage of their time interacting with the apparatus than they did in unmodeled trials. These results suggest that the demonstrations of a model may increase the motivation of elephants to explore novel foraging tasks.


Elephants Loxodonta Social learning Imitation Animal cognition 



We are very grateful to the elephant training staff at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park for their assistance, support, and encouragement, and to Melissa Ritzer and Erin Lane for their diligent coding of the videotapes. Dr. Doree Fragaszy generously offered advice on an earlier version of this paper, as did two anonymous reviewers.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian J. Greco
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Tracey K. Brown
    • 2
  • Jeff R. M. Andrews
    • 3
  • Ronald R. Swaisgood
    • 3
  • Nancy G. Caine
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Animal ScienceDavisUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesCalifornia State University San MarcosSan MarcosUSA
  3. 3.San Diego Zoo GlobalSan DiegoUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyCalifornia State University San MarcosSan MarcosUSA

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