Social learning in captive adult African elephants (Loxodonta africana africana)

Little is known about the ways in which elephants solve novel foraging problems or how conspecifics may influence problem solving. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that social learning may play an important role in elephant behavioral ecology. In my thesis research I asked if learning is facilitated after viewing a conspecific's interactions with a novel task. Serving as the model, the most dominant female in an African elephant herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park learned how to extract food from each of six apparatus. Five subdominant females each interacted with three apparatus after watching the model; they also interacted with three other apparatus without having first watched the model (unmodeled condition). Contrary to my hypotheses, the elephants did not necessarily solve the task in the way the model solved it, nor did they solve it more quickly in the modeled condition, suggesting that the elephants did not engage in imitative social learning. However, the subjects spent 16% more time interacting with the novel apparatus in the modeled than in the unmodeled condition, and solve time was correlated with the focus time, a measure that was designed to reflect engagement in the task. These results suggest that in elephants, the efficiency of learning a novel task may be improved through the social enhancement of exploratory behavior. Future research should be directed towards the development of social learning methodologies that better suit elephants, and should place greater emphasis on non-imitative forms and mechanisms of social learning. Keywords: Elephants, African Elephants (Loxodonta africana africana), Social Learning, Non-Imitative Social Learning, Cognition