Multiple assessments of personality and problem-solving performance in captive Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and African savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana)

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Lisa P Barrett, Sarah Benson-Amram
Journal of Comparative Psychology
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Animal personality has been shown to predict many behavioral responses across taxa, but the relationship between personality and performance on cognitive tasks remains unclear. To address this gap, we investigated whether personality predicted problem-solving performance and learning in captive Asian and African savanna elephants. We leveraged 3 novel problem-solving tasks to assess success rate, latency to touch the apparatus, exploratory diversity (the number of different behaviors exhibited toward the task), work time (the proportion of time working on the tasks), and latency to solve. To measure multiple different personality traits, such as boldness, activity, aggressiveness, curiosity, and sociability, across contexts, we carried out novel object presentations, behavioral coding through observations, and trait rating through surveys with zookeepers. We found evidence of personality through behavioral observations and surveys, but not through novel object testing. Aggressiveness and activity were important predictors of problem solving, but this was task-dependent, and the traits we measured did not significantly predict learning. Elephants solved 2 out of 3 tasks faster over time, but they did not vary their latency to touch, exploratory diversity, or work time. We discuss our results in terms of task difficulty and previous work on personality in elephants. Results from this study lay the foundation for future work connecting individual variation in personality to cognitive performance in elephants. In addition, for zoo-housed animals, individual differences research could inform enrichment and welfare decisions as well as conservation strategies.


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