Individual and collective intelligence in elephants: a test of reasoning in a socially unique mammal
TWCF Number
Project Duration
January 1 / 2023
- December 31 / 2024
Core Funding Area
Big Questions
North America
Amount Awarded

* A Grant DOI (digital object identifier) is a unique, open, global, persistent and machine-actionable identifier for a grant.

Joshua Plotnik
Institution Research Foundation of the City University of New York

In some species of animals, collective decision-making may overwhelmingly overshadow individual self-interest. Chimpanzees, for instance, are highly cooperative but they are also highly competitive. Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), however, limit competition and depend on the decision-making of the most dominant individual in the herd. Elephants care cooperatively for young and do not individually monopolize or share food resources, and thus, decision-making in individuals may not often be mutually exclusive of collective action.

In their previous work, Joshua Plotnik’s Lab at Hunter College, City University of New York has found that elephants are innovative and cooperative problem-solvers that coordinate efforts to maximize benefits. Yet studies have not been conducted to investigate the cognitive mechanisms that underlie collective action in elephants. With this project, the research team plans to conduct two experiments to investigate whether and how elephants demonstrate reasoning and rationality as both individuals and collectives. The experiments are to take place in environments – both a human-disturbed wild landscape and a relatively stable captive one – that could impact variation in the expression of these capacities. In addition, this project will also study anticipatory reasoning in elephants.They plan to design a novel task to test elephants’ capacity for innovative physical and social problem-solving and to look at how collective behavior impacts the way such problems are solved. The researchers predict that behavioral variation will be greatest between individuals living alone and in small male groups, and lowest within natural, female-centric collectives where attention to the matriarch’s decisions is paramount.

Opinions expressed on this page, or any media linked to it, do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc. does not control the content of external links.
Related Blog Post
The20 Thoughtful20 Giant20 20podcast20with20 Josh20 Plotnik20about20elephants
The Thoughtful Giant: Elephant Cognition with Joshua Plotnik (podcast)
This conversation offers a look into how elephants perceive and think, solve problems, and make decisions.

Read More
Person doing research
Projects &
Explore the projects we’ve funded. We’ve awarded hundreds of grants to researchers and institutions worldwide.

Projects & Resources