I’ve spoken before about how YouTube and the explosion of camera phones has given animal behaviour researchers a a way of quantifying behaviour that is rarely seen, or would once have been thought of as anecdotal. Well here’s a short example of (what looks to be) a very strange behaviour that is prolifegate on YouTube and the interwebs.
Hey, don’t leave. This is a science blog. Sit down and watch these videos of elephants painting with sticks.
In that second video, at around 09:20, I wonder if that’s a bit of stereotypic behaviour going on.
By my thinking, as animal behaviour and welfare scientists, we’re interested in two or three main questions here:
- Are these animals creating art?
- Does the animal know what it is depicting?
- Is the process rewarding for the animal?
Firstly, we’ll define ‘art’ in a somewhat simplistic manner for the sake of this blog post – it should be a piece designed to provoke feelings in the viewer. This would require the elephants to have a theory of mind and to understand that someone ‘other’ than them perceives things and feels emotions. This is a pretty complex concept to grasp. There’s some evidence (Edgar et al 2012) to suggest that some species are capable of empathy (or proto-empathy), i.e. understanding that another individual has an emotional response comparable to your own, and yet different from yours. Strictly speaking empathy doesn’t mean you understand you can influence the emotional state of others, just that you understand they have it.
So are the elephants trying to manipulate our emotional state through their actions? Probably not. Could the elephants be doing this because they get rewarded afterwards – most likely.
Now both these elephants paint what looks like another elephant. Do they know this is what they’re painting? Are they deliberately trying to paint themselves? (Or their mothers, sisters, etc.) Well there’s two aspects to this question – yes animals can recognise other members of their own species, but they don’t see in the same way we do. For example, you have to take very high definition photographs of a chicken before it will recognise it (D’Eath, 1998). In that case, unless something looks ‘realistic’ to a chicken, they don’t recognise it as a representation of their species.
You can train dogs and parrots to recognise that the phrase ‘blue’ refers to the colour ‘blue’ and various shapes (Pepperberg et al, 2000) but I question the difference between being able to identify the concepts and knowing the sound-object-colour associations. You could train an elephant to associate that particular shape with other elephants, but that doesn’t mean that it conceptually indicates elephants.
However, it is considerably simpler to imagine that these elephants have been taught to paint this shape (considering they all seem to paint the same thing), which is pretty cognitively impressive regardless.
Lastly – is it rewarding for the animal? I already pointed out what looks like a bit of a stereotypy and by all my interpretations above these are captive wild animals performing for their supper. From my point of view, I decry Blackfish for this exact thing. This is just marketed as earthy and vaguely ‘ethnic’, and not at all corporate like SeaWorld. Here we have a very intelligent animal being given a series of instructions that it has learned the appropriate responses to. I don’t see it as anything more.
However cats painting looks hilarious.