Elephants: studying cognition in the African Savannah

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As large brained, slow-maturing, very social animals, elephants offer exciting potential for studies of cognition. In popular literature they are famed for having long memories and being very caring of others, but surprisingly little empirical research into elephant cognitive skill has been conducted. This is due at least in part to the problems inherent to studying such large creatures that cannot be housed in a laboratory. Field studies of elephant cognition are difficult to design, plan and execute, whereas studies of captive elephant can suffer from serious behavioural confounds and pose complicated ethical dilemmas. Here I outline those confounds, so that they may be avoided or at least addressed in future studies of captive elephants, and I attempt to elucidate the process of designing, planning and conducting field-work, so that valid and robust research may be conducted in the future. I argue that ecological validity is key to successfully investigating elephant cognition, and that tests of general or widespread cognitive skills must be adapted to be appropriate for a large-bodied animal with a highly developed auditory sense and an extremely strong, dextrous and still sensitive nose.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationField and Laboratory Methods in Animal Cognition
Subtitle of host publicationA Comparative Guide
EditorsNereida Bueno-Guerra, Federica Amici
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781108333191
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2018

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