To reach food that is too far away, elephants will blast it with directed air to drive it within reach. People have observed this informally, but a new study of two captive elephants demonstrated that elephants do indeed blast air with intent, modifying the duration and strength of their onboard air cannons.
Interestingly, one elephant was better than the other at air-blasting, targeting specific corners of the piece of food like a billiards expert aiming for a spin shot. Is this tool use? By most definitions, which involve using or modifying a physical object, probably not. But as the authors describe in the study, it doesn't matter whether or not it fits the definition of tool use according to a research-defined binary. They write, "determining whether a given behaviour constitutes tool use is less important than analysing examples in which animals need to exhibit their cognitive abilities in a flexible way to solve a problem." This example, particularly the sophisticated technical understanding exhibited by the elephant Minoko, demonstrates that elephants have such cognitive flexibility.
Elephants are not the only animals to use "the elements" to solve problems. The famous archerfish shoot jets of water to knock insects within their reach, which is particularly interesting since they must be able to anticipate the refraction (bending) of light at the air-water interface in order to hit their target (the same challenge faced by a heron spearing fish). Similarly, stingrays quickly learn to use water jets to extract food from narrow tubes, and whales create massive "nets" of bubbles to trap many fish at once.
Whether or not elephants might enjoy using their air cannon for pranks remains to be seen.
“The blowing behavior we observed was goal-directed,” the scientists explained. “Both elephants blew the inaccessible food until it reached an accessible range and blew even more to drive food towards them.” “Mineko, the dominant female, was more proficient, particularly when it came to adjusting the position of her trunk to target the air at a specific point on the food to push it in the right direction.” “By blowing air through their trunks to obtain inaccessible food, the elephants appear to exhibit an advanced understanding of their physical environment. Their skills to manipulate air might be related to those elephants commonly use,” said study lead author Dr Kaori Mizuno, of the Wildlife Research Center of Kyoto University and the Graduate University for Advanced Studies.