Volume 15: pp. 131-148

The Importance of Sensory Perception in an Elephant’s Cognitive World

Sarah L. Jacobson and Joshua M. Plotnik

Hunter College, City University of New York

Graduate Center, City University of New York

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The three living species of elephants (Elephas maximus, Loxodonta africana, L. cyclotis) have evolved adaptive, sensory perceptual abilities to successfully navigate the physical and social environments in which they live. In this article, we review research evaluating the sensory perception of elephants across four sensory modalities—vision, audition, touch, and chemosensation. We also address how these sensory modalities have been incorporated into empirical investigations of elephant cognition. Last, we discuss the importance of considering sensory perception when interpreting elephants’ performance on cognitive tasks and the potential application of perception and cognition research to wild elephant conservation. Our review suggests that elephant cognition experiments should rely less on visual, primate-centric testing paradigms that neglect the elephant’s multimodal sensory perception and instead focus on providing elephants with a complete sensory experience. Specifically, where appropriate, elephants should be given access to acoustic and olfactory information in cognitive experiments to ensure that results are due to the elephant’s cognitive capabilities rather than confounds of experimental design. Based on what we now know about elephants, attention to their complementary visual, olfactory, and acoustic perception is crucial for understanding how they make decisions in their natural world.

Keywords: sensory perception, elephant intelligence, comparative cognition, vision,
, touch, chemosensation

Author Note: Joshua Plotnik, Dept of Psychology, 695 Park Avenue (Room 611N), Hunter College, New York, NY 10065

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joshua Plotnik at joshua.plotnik@gmail.com.