We can all feel a ‘hangover’ from time to time when forced to operate on an empty stomach.
And it seems elephants are no different.
A new study found that they happily work together on tasks and have developed strategies to minimize competition in their social groups, but cooperation breaks down when food resources are limited.
Li-Li Li, who led the study with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, said: ‘We found that Asian elephants have a wide variety of behaviours to use when cooperating with their fellows and being careful about how to minimize competition based on their relationships.
‘This is a fascinating demonstration of how flexible and socially intelligent elephants are!’
Researchers studied nine semi-wild Asian elephants at Myaing Hay Wun Elephant Camp in Yangon, Myanmar, putting them through the steps with a series of tasks.
The first person to see the animals is given two trays of food that can only be obtained by pulling two ropes simultaneously – a challenge that requires two trunks.
They found that elephant pairs successfully cooperated in 80% of the trials.
Some elephants have attempted to cheat by ‘freeloading’ and stealing part of the reward from another cooperating pair.
However, while competitive behaviours were common, elephants also used mitigation strategies such as resisting or side-moving to prevent fraud and maintain cooperation.
Next, the researchers repeated the experiments with a single food tray, meaning that one partner could dominate the reward and leave the other with no food.
This more competitive scenario stimulated more costly and aggressive elephant behaviours, including fighting, with cooperation quickly breaking down as the animals sought to claim their reward.
The study sheds light on the evolution of cooperative behaviour in mammals.
The authors said that similar results were found in non-human primates, suggesting that distantly related species have developed similar strategies for maintaining cooperation in their social groups.
Unlike many primates, elephants are browsers and grazers that are unlikely to encounter a monopolistic food source in the wild, which may explain why cooperation is disrupted in the more competitive landscape.
The Asian elephant is classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
According to the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), it is under increasing pressure in the wild due to habitat destruction through human population growth.
As the human population continues to grow, elephants have less space to live naturally and are forced to live in smaller areas and more conflicting events with humans.