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Performance of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) on a quantity discrimination task is similar to that of African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana)

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Using an object-choice task, we measured the relative quantity discrimination ability of Asian elephants. Two zoo-housed elephants were given auditory cues of food being dropped into two containers (Nonvisible condition), and in one condition they could also see the food on top of the containers (Visible condition). Elephants received sets of varying ratios and magnitudes. We found that the elephants chose the greater quantity of food significantly above chance in both the Visible and Nonvisible conditions. Additionally, we found the elephants’ ability to discriminate between quantities decreased as the ratio, and not the absolute difference, between the quantities increased, which is predicted by the accumulator model. We also compare our findings to those from a study using the same methods with African savanna elephants and found that the two species performed at similar levels, but given our small sample size it is difficult to make strong species-level conclusions. In discussing our results, we consider differences between the two species’ wild environments as well as the types of sensory cues provided in human care, and we provide recommendations for extensions of this work.

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We thank the Oklahoma City Zoo’s elephant care team who assisted with this study, including Nick Newby, Amy Hofmeister, Debra Bastin, Daniel Custar, Brian Frank, Katie Reimers, Toni Rife, and Michael Chappell, as well as Laura Bottaro. This study was approved by the Oklahoma City Zoo’s Scientific Review Committee, which included Jennifer D’Agostino, Director of Veterinary Services, Barry Downer, Deputy Director, Laura Bottaro, Curator of Elephants, and Chris Butler, biology professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. The approved protocol number is 2015-019.

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Correspondence to Rebecca J. Snyder.

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Snyder, R.J., Barrett, L.P., Emory, R.A. et al. Performance of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) on a quantity discrimination task is similar to that of African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana). Anim Cogn 24, 1121–1131 (2021).

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