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Friday, July 22, 2011

Animals cooperate

Two more animals have been added to the annals of animal cooperation: elephants and African grey parrots.

The classical cooperation study used in chimpanzees and young children requires two individuals to perform a task. The two animals each must pull on a rope to bring a cart laden with treats within reach. If only one animal pulls, it will simply draw the rope completely out from around the cart.

The elephant study was conducted by Frans de Waal and his colleagues from Emory University and from the Forest Industry Organization in Lampang, Thailand. You can see some experiments below. Elephants were able to understand that that they must wait for a partner before pulling on their own rope.

The parrot study, led by Dalila Bovet of Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, showed similar results. However, African grey parrots were also able to divvy up two different types of tasks in order to get a reward. For example, one parrot might have to release a tray that the second parrot could then pull closer.

Interestingly, the personalities of the parrots seemed to come into play more than those of the elephants. When given a choice between a small reward that could be earned alone and a larger reward that required cooperation to obtain, two parrots (Zoe and Leo) worked well together but a third (Shango) always chose to work alone. Of course, it’s possible that the elephants in the Thailand study were willing to work together in different combinations because they were all part of the same family group. Like them, Zoe and Leo had been reared together, but Shango had been introduced later.