A rather picky Asian elephant at Berlin Zoo has taught herself to peel bananas but only uses her unique superpower on fruit that has started to turn brown. According to researchers, Pang Pha probably acquired a knack for skinning after observing her keepers, despite the fact that none of them ever taught her to operate a banana.
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.”
“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 get her game on for just any banana. In fact, when researchers began observing her, they initially thought her peeling preferences were completely random. “We would offer Pha bananas for weeks without her peeling a single one,” they write.
Eventually, they figured out that she selects certain bananas for de-skinning based on their ripeness. For instance, she never peeled green or green-yellow bananas, but did peel 82 percent of yellow-brown bananas “and a majority of brown bananas".
Typically, elephants eat green and yellow bananas whole – skin and all – but reject brown bananas outright.
Strangely, Pha’s banana behaviors were also strongly influenced by social context, and she was far less willing to demonstrate her peeling talents when in the company of other elephants. When dining alongside her daughter Anchali and another female Asian elephant called Drumbo, for instance, she ate the majority of yellow-brown bananas whole, with the exception of the final banana, which she peeled.
While elephants are known for their impressive cognitive abilities and highly dexterous trunks, the researchers say that the animals are not known to be adept at peeling bananas. “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.”
Attempting to explain Pang Pha’s unusual abilities, the authors report that when she first arrived at Berlin Zoo in 1987, Pha was hand-reared by keepers who “consistently fed her with peeled bananas, and peeled directly in front of her”. The researchers, therefore, suspect that Pha simply picked up the ability to peel through “observational learning”.
“We discovered a very unique behavior,” said study author Michael Brecht in a statement. “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.”
Despite Pha's gifts, the authors also note that none of the other elephants at Berlin Zoo – including Pha’s daughter – appear to have learned the trick from her. This suggests that the skill is not easily transmissible among elephants, which makes Pha’s self-taught abilities all the more impressive.
The study is published in Current Biology.