When I witness an elephant flay, I see everything (a banana).
An extremely picky Asian elephant at the Berlin Zoo has learned to peel bananas, but she only employs her special skill on fruit that has already begun to turn brown. Researchers claim that despite no of her keepers ever teaching her how to use a banana, Pang Pha undoubtedly developed skinning skills after watching them.
Describing Pha’s mad banana skills, a bunch of scientists explain how she “peels faster than humans by a partially stereotyped sequence of behaviors: she breaks the banana, shakes out and collects the pulp, and discards the peel.”
Pang Pha only peels bananas that have started to turn brown. Image credit: tiverylucky/Shutterstock.com
“Shaking and peeling are repeated until no or little pulp is left inside the peel, and leftovers are checked multiple times with the trunk tip,” they report.
However, Pha doesn’t turn up the heat for any old banana. When the researchers started studying her, they assumed that her preferred peeling methods were random. “We would give Pha bananas for weeks without her peeling a single one,” they wrote.
They eventually discovered that she chose particular bananas for de-skinning based on their level of ripeness. For instance, she never peeled green or green-yellow bananas, but she did peel 82% of yellow-brown bananas “and a majority of brown bananas.”
Elephants often eat green and yellow bananas whole, skin and all, but completely avoid brown bananas.
Strangely, Pha’s banana behaviors were also substantially influenced by her social environment, and she was far less eager to show off her expert banana-peeling skills around other elephants. She ate most of the yellow-brown bananas whole, except the last banana, which she peeled when dining with her daughter Anchali and another female Asian elephant named Drumbo, for instance.
Even though elephants are renowned for their excellent cognitive ability and extremely dexterous trunks, the researchers claim that the animals are not well known for their prowess at banana peeling. “African elephants appear to be able to interpret human pointing gestures and to classify human ethnic groups,” they write, “but complex human-derived manipulation behaviors like the banana peeling reported here appear to have only rarely been observed.”
The authors claim that Pang Pha was hand-reared by caretakers who “consistently fed her with peeled bananas, and peeled directly in front of her” when she initially came to Berlin Zoo in 1987 to explain her extraordinary abilities. Therefore, the researchers believe Pha learned how to peel through “observational learning.”
“We discovered a unique behavior,” said study author Michael Brecht. “What makes Pang Pha’s banana peeling so unique is a combination of factors skillfulness, speed, individuality, and the putatively human origin rather than a single behavioral element.”
The authors also point out that despite Pha’s talents, none of the other elephants at Berlin Zoo, including Pha’s offspring, appear to have picked up the trick from her. That makes Pha’s self-taught skills all the more amazing because it shows that the skill is not easily transmitted among elephants.
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