Asian elephants are aware of their own bodies, and can recognise when they constitute an obstacle to complete a problem-solving task, scientists have shown. Their work sheds a new light on the animals' intelligence and self-awareness.

Only a small number of species appear to show some degree of self-awareness. Studies have suggested that this is the case for humans and great apes but also for dolphins, magpies and elephants.

To test self-awareness, scientists typically use the "mirror-test", where they investigate if animals are able to recognise themselves when they look in a mirror.

"Animals that show self-directed behaviour in front of a mirror – looking inside their mouths or at parts of their bodies they wouldn't otherwise be able to see, for example – suggests they can recognise their mirror reflection as self", study author Joshua Plotnik, a visiting faculty member in psychology at the City University of New York's Hunter College, told IBTimes UK.

"Scientists also often perform a mark test, where they mark an animal in a place on their body they can only see in the mirror. If the animal touches the mark on their body in view of the mirror, they are said to pass the mark test, which supports the notion the animals are self-aware."

Animals that succeed in this test thus have an ability to see themselves as distinct from others and from their environment. This is often interpreted to mean that they can also put themselves in the shoes of others and can display a form of empathy.

Some psychologists argue that self-awareness is all or nothing. Animals are either aware of themselves or not at all.

"We argue that there may be a spectrum of self-awareness. It does not mean that they are not self-aware if they don't pass the mirror test, but rather this test may not be suitable for all species, especially if vision is not their primary sense, there may be other ways to show different aspects of self-awareness", Plotnik, who is also the founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, said.

With his colleague Rachel Dale (University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna), he designed a new test to assess levels of self-awareness in Asian elephants. Their findings are now published in Scientific Reports.

Elephants on a rubber mat

The scientists designed their test based on another carried out in human children, in which the young participants were asked to push a shopping trolley, which was attached to a mat on which they were standing.

Here, the two scientists attached a stick to a rubber mat. The elephants' task was to walk onto the mat and pick up the stick. They then had to pass it to a researcher standing in front of them – but to do so, they first had to get off the mat (see video).

The scientists' aim was to understand whether elephants understood the role of their bodies as potential obstacles to succeed in the task. They investigated how and when the animals removed themselves from the mat in order to exchange the stick.

asian elephant
Asian elephants are threatened by a lack of habitat wribs/Flickr

They found out that the elephants were able to recognise when their bodies lied in the way of them completing a task. The scientists believe this level of self-awareness may be a good proxy for intelligence and hope to use this test on other species that may not have succeeded previously in the mirror test.

The findings could help further the cause of conservationists who want to protect Asian elephants – one of the world's most endangered species. By showing that these animals are intelligent and self-aware the hope is that a growing number of people will start to care more about them.

"More practically, we know that the greatest threat to Asian elephants is conflict with humans due to lack of habitat. This raises the question of how we can cohabit with these animals. Most strategies so far rely on scaring the elephants away from local communities or crops but better solutions may come from a better understanding of elephant behaviour. Learning more about how intelligent elephants are may help us achieve a more balanced conservation approach, one that is also more effective", Plotnik concluded.