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Persistence is key: investigating innovative problem solving by Asian elephants using a novel multi-access box

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Abstract

Innovative problem solving is considered a hallmark measure of behavioral flexibility as it describes behavior by which an animal manipulates its environment in a novel way to reach a goal. Elephants are a highly social taxa that have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for adapting to changing environments. To understand how individual differences in behavior impact expressions of innovation, we used a novel extractive foraging device comprised of three compartments to evaluate innovation in 14 captive Asian elephants. In the first phase of testing, elephants had an opportunity to learn one solution, while the second phase gave them an opportunity to innovate to open two other compartments with different solutions. We measured the behavioral traits of neophilia, persistence, motivation, and exploratory diversity, and hypothesized that higher levels of each would be associated with more success in the second phase. Eight elephants innovated to solve three compartments, three solved two, and two solved only one. Consistent with studies in other species, we found that higher success was associated with greater persistence, but not with any other behavioral traits when analyzed per test session. Greater persistence and, unexpectedly, lower exploratory diversity, were associated with success when analyzed at the level of each individual door. Further work is needed to understand how innovation varies both within and between species, with particular attention to the potential impact of anthropogenic changes in wild environments.

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Acknowledgements

We thank two anonymous reviewers and the editor for their suggestions that helped us improve this manuscript. We are especially grateful to the elephant teams and the zoo administration at the Oklahoma City Zoo and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, including Debra Ann Bastin, Rachel Emory, Ted Fox, Dwight Lawson, Amy Mathews, and Nick Newby for their support during this study. Their care of the elephants, their dedication to their jobs and their support of research make animal behavior research in zoological settings possible. Special thanks to Eldred Fuchs at the Oklahoma City Zoo for constructing the boxes. We thank Martin Chodorow for invaluable statistical advice, Sasha Montero-De La Torre for assistance with data collection, Matthew Rudolph for help with Fig. 2, and Miranda Trapani for reliability coding. This research was funded by the Animal Behavior and Conservation Program at Hunter College, and the Research Foundation of CUNY on behalf of Hunter College. This material is based upon work supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. (DGE-1646736) awarded to S.L.J. Data collected during the Master’s thesis project of A.P. while she was enrolled in the Animal Behavior and Conservation Program at Hunter College contributed, in part, to this paper.

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Correspondence to Sarah L. Jacobson or Joshua M. Plotnik.

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Jacobson, S.L., Puitiza, A., Snyder, R.J. et al. Persistence is key: investigating innovative problem solving by Asian elephants using a novel multi-access box. Anim Cogn 25, 657–669 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01576-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01576-3

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