elephant mom and baby

Students studied elephant behavior. Image: Shutterstock


What really goes on inside the head of an elephant?  Wouldn’t you like to know?  We all would, actually.  It turns out elephants are much more complex than once believed.  A group of middle school students was brought on board to study elephants and learn their secrets.

A group of 13 students from the East Side Middle School in New York were asked to co-author a scientific article alongside scholarly researchers. The researchers believed the children might be able to approach the study with fresh eyes, as kids are naturally inquisitive.

What they discovered was astounding.  Before the study, mahouts, or elephant handlers, believed elephants responded to visual cues easily.  As it turned out, they were more attuned to sounds and smells.  When the mahouts started using a visual cue alongside a verbal command, the elephants chose the right food bucket.

Because the study took place at in Thailand, the students were unable to participate in person.  However, Joshua Plotnik, the lead researcher, sent videos of the research to the students to review. He also spoke with them via Skype.

According to Plotnik, elephants are fascinating because they are a member the animal kingdom’s “cognitive elite.”

Elephants walking

Students learned about elephants’ complext behavior. Image: Shutterstock

Some of what Plotnik previously worked to prove was that elephants are able to recognize themselves in a mirror.  That is relatively rare as the only other animals known to do so are the great apes, dolphins and magpies.

One of the students who worked on the project, James Hill, said, “I had a very passive idea that conservation was something that society should be doing. But I wasn’t concerned that it was a critical situation — which it really is. Afterwards I realized how much individual responsibility everybody has.”