An elephant's autonomous mastery of peeling bananas provides a fascinating insight into the broader cognitive capabilities of these majestic creatures.

A recent report published in the journal Current Biology on April 10 reveals an intriguing behavior exhibited by a particular Asian elephant named Pang Pha at the Berlin Zoo. Unlike typical elephants, Pang Pha has independently picked up the art of peeling bananas, a behavior not commonly observed in elephants. She specifically applies this skill to ripe yellow-brown bananas, first breaking the fruit and then shaking out and collecting the pulp, while leaving the thick peel behind.

Pha peeling bananas. Credit: Current Biology/Kaufmann et al

The study authors suggest that Pang Pha most likely learned this unique peeling behavior by observing her caretakers peel bananas for her. This intriguing finding not only sheds light on the remarkable cognitive abilities of elephants but also hints at their dexterity and adaptability in manipulating objects. It provides further evidence that elephants possess complex and flexible cognitive skills that go beyond their previously known behaviors.

"We have observed a truly remarkable behavior," stated Michael Brecht from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience. "What sets Pang Pha's banana peeling apart is the extraordinary combination of skill, speed, individuality, and the potential human influence, rather than a single isolated behavior."

Similar to other elephants, Pang Pha typically consumes green or yellow bananas without peeling them. She outright rejects brown bananas. However, when presented with yellow bananas speckled with brown spots, the kind that is often used for baking banana bread, she exhibits the behavior of peeling them before consuming the pulp. This unique behavior showcases Pang Pha's exceptional abilities and underscores the complexity of elephant cognition. 

Brecht and his colleagues, including Lena Kaufmann from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Andreas Ochs from Berlin Zoological Garden, made this intriguing discovery after being informed by Pha's caretakers about her uncommon talent for peeling bananas. Initially, they were puzzled as they had offered Pha various yellow and green bananas before, but she never peeled them.

"It was only when we realized that she exclusively peels yellow-brown bananas that our investigation gained momentum," Brecht explained.

Upon offering a group of elephants yellow-brown bananas, the researchers observed a change in Pha's behavior. She would consume as many bananas as she could without peeling them, but would then save the last one to peel later.

Notably, banana peeling appears to be a rare behavior among elephants, and none of the other elephants at the Berlin Zoo engage in this activity. The reason why Pha peels bananas remains unclear. The researchers point out that Pha was hand-raised by human caretakers at the zoo, who fed her peeled bananas, but never actively taught her how to peel them.

Based on this observation, the researchers suggest that Pha likely acquired the skill of banana peeling through observational learning from humans. While previous studies have shown that elephants can interpret human gestures and classify people into ethnic groups, complex manipulation behaviors such as banana peeling appear to be unique. Nevertheless, Pha's behavior highlights the surprising cognitive abilities and impressive manipulative skills of elephants as a species.

"It is evident that elephants possess truly remarkable trunk skills and that their behavior is influenced by experience," commented Brecht.

The researchers are intrigued by the fact that Pha, among all the elephants at the Berlin Zoo, was the only one observed to exhibit banana-peeling behavior. This has prompted them to investigate whether such habits are typically passed down through elephant families. They are also exploring other sophisticated trunk behaviors, such as tool use, to further understand the cognitive and manipulative abilities of elephants. The findings from Pha's unique behavior have opened up new avenues of research and highlight the complexity and adaptability of elephant behaviors in response to their environment and experiences.

Source : Wataru Brecht, Elephant Banana Peeling, Current Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.02.076.


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