UW Study Finds Elephants Can Use Water As A Tool

Aug 7, 2020

Elephants at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
Credit Lisa Barrett

University of Wyoming researchers examined how elephants use water as a tool in a new study.

Lisa Barrett, a postdoctoral fellow at the Oklahoma City zoo and a recent UW graduate, said she used something called the floating object test to see how elephants solve problems.

"Animals are presented with a tube filled with a little bit of water and some sort of floating reward like a peanut," said Barrett. "Animals have to figure out that they need to add water to the tube in order to raise the water level so that they can reach the floating reward."

Barrett said that one elephant succeeded at the task.

"We found one elephant, a female named Shanthi at the National Zoo, could do it," she said. "She started adding water in her very first trial but didn't actually get the marshmallow until her second trial. And then she solved every trial after that."

Barrett said that although they could not get the treat, the other elephants were more interested in the test after watching a fellow elephant succeed.

She said these and future results from her research will provide information on how to better manage captive and wild elephants. You can watch videos of the elephants here.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.