Are Elephants Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Air Date: 09/13/2011
Source:
NBC Today Show
Creator:
Savannah Guthrie/Tom Costello
Air/Publish Date:
09/13/2011
Event Date:
09/13/2011
Resource Type:
News Report
Copyright:
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
2011
Clip Length:
00:03:31

NBC's Tom Costello reports that researchers at the National Zoo have found that some elephants have problem-solving skills that are as complex as those of fourth and fifth grade students.

Are Elephants Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, co-host:

Back now at 7:42 with an interesting question: How smart are elephants? Researchers at the National Zoo in Washington and City University of New York say they've witnessed something extraordinary that may change the way we think of these giant beasts. NBC's Tom Costello is at the Smithsonian National Zoo with details this morning. Tom, good morning. Guess they're not just beautiful, but smart, too.

TOM COSTELLO reporting:

Hey, Savannah, absolutely. Good morning. This is Kandula behind me. He's having a little bit of breakfast. You know, researchers say that the human brain is about the size of a three-pound melon, more or less. The elephant brain, 11 pounds. It's about the size of these two watermelons put together. We know that elephants are smart, that they can do some problem solving, that they have complex social skills. We know that they recognize themselves in a mirror. Researchers think that Kandula is using every bit of his brain. It's something anyone who's ever visited the zoo has wondered: How smart are the elephants?

Unidentified Boy: Almost as smart as this kid here.

COSTELLO: Really? Almost as smart as your brother, huh?

Boy: Yeah. My brother's four.

COSTELLO: Turns out he's right. Researchers think elephants are at least as smart as four-year-old humans. But at the Smithsonian National Zoo, they witnessed Kandula do something when he was just seven that has them convinced he's something of an elephant brainiac. This was problem solving.

DON MOORE (Associate Director for Animal Care Sciences, Smithsonian National Zoo): Absolute problem solving by an elephant just like a fourth- or fifth-grade human would do it.

COSTELLO: To see if Kandula could solve a problem, researchers tempted him with some bamboo and fruit suspended just out of his reach. Kandula realizes he needs a step, so he rolls over a big cube, places it just beneath the branches, steps up and grabs the fruit. Animal care experts called it a eureka or aha moment, a problem-solving realization shared by humans, chimps and dolphins.

MOORE: We think maybe that with Kandula it's because he's a younger male elephant, and so younger animals tend to be more inquisitive and maybe that led him to do this problem-solving behavior.

COSTELLO: Then the next day, Kandula realizes he could do the same thing by flipping a tire into place. Animal keeper Sean Royals has been working with elephants for 20 years. He's not surprised.

Mr. SEAN ROYALS: Most people assume they're just big, dopey animals, but when you just really stand and watch them for a while you'll see them multitasking, you know. They're always sort of thinking things through to use the least amount of energy to accomplish the task.

Boy: Are elephant ears the same as people ears?

COSTELLO: In fact, we may share a lot more than we think with elephants. And researchers say that's the point.

MOORE: We hope that this kind of scientific study with zoo animals that shows this level of intelligence that's very similar to human intelligence makes other people on the planet aware of how smart and wonderful these animals are and makes them care about their conservation, because these guys are critically endangered.

COSTELLO: We are back out live as Kandula enjoys a little bit of breakfast here at the National Zoo. And what's important here, as well, is that the Smithsonian folks say that since they found this research with the folks at Hunter College in New York, they've gotten calls from zoos all over the country saying, `Hey, my elephant does that,' or, `My
elephant does this.' But this was a scientific study, so they are now getting more of this data to show how smart these guys are and how much mental stimulation these types of animals really need. Guys, back to you.

GUTHRIE: All right, Tom Costello. Thanks so much.

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