In two elephant rope pulling task, cooperation crumbled if one partner could monopolize food – sciencedaily
Asian elephants are eager to cooperate with their friends and have developed strategies to lessen competition in their social groups, but cooperation collapses when food resources are limited, according to a study published on September 28.e in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Li-Li Li at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, China, and colleagues. The study sheds light on the evolution of cooperative behavior in mammals.
The researchers tested nine semi-wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) at Myaing Hay Wun Elephant Camp in Yangon, Myanmar, with a simple co-op task and open access. The elephants were offered two trays of food, which could only be accessed by pulling two ropes simultaneously – a task requiring two proboscis.
They found that pairs of elephants cooperated successfully in 80% of the trials. Some elephants have tried to cheat, for example by “charging for free” and stealing part of the reward from another cooperative pair. While competitive behaviors were common, elephants used mitigation strategies – such as retaliation or switching sides – to prevent cheating and maintain cooperation.
Then the researchers repeated the trials with a single food platter, meaning one partner could dominate the reward, leaving the other without food. In this more competitive scenario, the elephants exhibited more costly competitive behaviors, such as fighting, to access the reward, and cooperation quickly broke down.
This is the first experiment to test elephants in a cooperative rope-pulling task, but similar results have been found for non-human primates, suggesting that distant species have convergently developed similar strategies to maintain cooperation in their social groups, according to the authors. Unlike many primates, elephants are general navigators and grazers who are unlikely to encounter monopoly food resources in the wild, which may explain why cooperation has failed in the most competitive scenario.
“We have found that Asian elephants have a diverse repertoire of behaviors to use when cooperating with others and paying attention to how to lessen competition based on their relationships,” Li adds. an exciting demonstration of the flexibility and social intelligence of elephants! “
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