Elephants can ‘count’ with their trunks using smells to identify where the most food is found 

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Elephants can ‘count’ using their sense of smell, new research has found.

Their sense of smell is so good, that in tests, they were able to detect which of two bucket contained more sunflower seeds.

This is thought to be the first time that an animal is able to use its sense of smell to make a simple calculation of whether one of two quantities is more or less than another – the most basic form of maths.

The amount of seeds in each bucket was quite small – varying between 4grams and 24 grams.

 

Many animal species up to now have shown an ability to distinguish between more and less when presented with different amounts of food, the researchers said.

But they have used vision to discriminate.

Dogs have so far been unable to show they can perform the same trick in tests of their abilities to smell, known to scientists as olfaction.

The researchers writing in the journal PNAS write: ‘In this study, by contrast, elephants showed that they can detect differences between various quantities of food using only their sense of smell.

‘Thus, elephants may be unique in their use of olfaction in cognitive tasks.’

For humans the ability to differentiate between more and less is helpful – for instance in the supermarket, the ’10 items queue or less’ is usually quicker than others.

But for an elephant it could be vital.

The authors write that elephants often travel long distances to find better-quality food and water, which can vary according to seasonal availability, changes to their environment, and a risk they could be attacked by humans.

The best performers – two bull elephants called Pepsi and Phuki – were able to get it right more than 80 per cent of the time.

The scientists suggest that male elephants are better at the task because they need to eat more food, making it more important that their sense of smell is keener.

They also have to sniff out females in heat over long distances in order to reproduce, the authors write.

Joshua Plotnik from Hunter College, City University of New York, New York and colleagues carried out the tests on six 12-45-year-old Asian elephants living in the grounds of a hotel in northern Thailand.

The buckets containing the seeds was opaque and had a perforated lid to let the odour out.

In experiments, the elephants chose the greater quantity of seeds in each pair, regardless of the quantity of seeds presented.

The accuracy of the prediction was better when the difference between each pair increased.

It worsened as the ratio between the pair of presented quantities decreased, reinforcing the notion that elephants have a nose for quantity.

They say that while elephants do use vision, particularly in close contexts where they react to each other’s body language, they use it mainly to complement their more dominant senses – hearing, smell and touch.

The elephants were tested at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in northern Thailand. The research was published in the journal PNAS.

That elephants have a nifty sense of smell is perhaps unsurprising. They have more genes related to smell than any other animal: 2,000 compared to around 800 for a dog. In a separate study, elephants were found to be better able to sniff out hidden TNT than trained explosive sniffer dogs.

 

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