Animal Cognition

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 215–222 | Cite as

Asian elephants acquire inaccessible food by blowing

  • Kaori MizunoEmail author
  • Naoko Irie
  • Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa
  • Nobuyuki Kutsukake
Original Paper


Many animals acquire otherwise inaccessible food with the aid of sticks and occasionally water. As an exception, some reports suggest that elephants manipulate breathing through their trunks to acquire inaccessible food. Here, we report on two female Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) in Kamine Zoo, Japan, who regularly blew to drive food within their reach. We experimentally investigated this behaviour by placing foods in inaccessible places. The elephants blew the food until it came within accessible range. Once the food was within range, the elephants were increasingly less likely to blow as the distance to the food became shorter. One subject manipulated her blowing duration based on food distance: longer when the food was distant. These results suggest that the elephants used their breath to achieve goals: that is, they used it not only to retrieve the food but also to fine-tune the food position for easy grasping. We also observed individual differences in the elephants’ aptitude for this technique, which altered the efficiency of food acquisition. Thus, we added a new example of spontaneous behaviour for achieving a goal in animals. The use of breath to drive food is probably unique to elephants, with their dexterous trunks and familiarity with manipulating the act of blowing, which is commonly employed for self-comfort and acoustic communication.


Asian elephants Tool use Goal-directed behaviour Problem solving Individual differences 



We are deeply grateful to the staff of Kamine Zoo—particularly the zoo director Mr. Nobutaka Namae, and the zoo keepers Mr. Isamu Ouchi, Mr. Satoshi Kimura, Mr. Kazuyuki Takahara, and Mr. Tabito Nakamoto—for their assistance with the experiment. We thank Dr. Motoomi Yamaguchi (SOKENDAI) for his help in calculating reliability. We also thank the following people for their advice on improving the manuscript: Dr. Hisashi Ohtsuki, Dr. Ai Kawamori, Mr. Masahito Morita, and Dr. Finlay Stewart (SOKENDAI); and Dr. Michio Nakamura (Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical standard

This experiment was approved by the Research Ethics Committee of The Graduate University for Advanced Studies (2014A002) and by Kamine Zoo.

Supplementary material

Supplementary material 1 (MOV 47386 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kaori Mizuno
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Naoko Irie
    • 1
  • Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa
    • 1
  • Nobuyuki Kutsukake
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Evolutionary Studies of Biosystems, School of Advanced SciencesSOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies)HayamaJapan
  2. 2.Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University, Division of Biological Science, Graduate School of ScienceKyoto UniversityKyotoJapan

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