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Elephants Use Trunks As Leaf Blowers To Reach Food, Proving Situational Awareness, Researchers Say

Nov 05, 2015 04:57 PM EST
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Some Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) may blast air through their trunks like leaf blowers in order to acquire food they can't otherwise reach, suggesting that they have an advanced awareness of their surroundings, a new study revealed. While previous studies suggest some animals may use their breath in this novel way, no definitive evidence of the behavior has been officially documented until now.

"By blowing air through their trunks to obtain inaccessible food, the elephants appear to exhibit an advanced understanding of their physical environment. Their skills to manipulate air might be related to those elephants commonly use, such as blowing for self-comfort and acoustic communication," Kaori Mizuno, lead author of the study, explained in a news release .   

In order to test an elephant's ability to manipulate their breath specifically to obtain a goal – like reaching inaccessible food – researchers from the SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for advanced studies) and Kyoto University studied two captive elephant populations in Japan's Kamine Zoo.

For their study, researchers situated apples, bamboo, hay, fallen leaves and potatoes throughout various locations within an elephant enclosure and videotaped the animals as they attempted to reach the food. Researchers predicted that the further away a piece of food was, the more likely the animals were to blast air through their trunks to obtain it or blow it closer to them. In total, researchers observed the elephant feeding behavior in 128 trials over the course of 32 days and were able to measure the frequency and duration of blowing, the position and shape of an elephant held its trunk while doing so and the success rate of each elephant.

On average, it took three blasts of air for the elephants to reach inaccessible food; not surprisingly, the animals were less likely to try when in areas where food was more easily attainable.

Mineko, a dominent female, seemed particularly suited to working for her food. Researchers explained that she knew enough to adjust the position of her trunk in order to properly target what she wanted and to blow it in the right direction.

The study, recently published in the journal Animal Cognition, is shedding light on the psychological process of animal problem-solving behavior. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Samantha on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13

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