African Elephants Understand Human Gestures; Can Respond To Pointing Without Any Training

By Josh Lieberman on October 11, 2013 1:39 PM EDT

elephants
Elephants can understand human pointing, a rarity in the animal kingdom, according to a new study. (Photo: Flickr: vsmithuk)

Elephants are able to understand when humans point, a seemingly simple human gesture that is lost on almost every other animal, according to a research published in the journal Current Biology. What's more, the elephants in the study understood pointing without any training, unlike domesticated animals like dogs and horses, which need to be trained. The findings may indicate that elephants are smarter than previously thought, as even highly intelligent animals like chimpanzees -- among our closest relatives -- don't understand the concept of pointing.  

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"By showing that African elephants spontaneously understand human pointing, without any training to do so, we have shown that the ability to understand pointing is not uniquely human but has also evolved in a lineage of animal very remote from the primates," said study author Richard Byrne from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. "What elephants share with humans is that they live in an elaborate and complex network in which support, empathy, and help for others are critical for survival." 

Byrne's test subjects were 11 African elephants in southern Africa. The elephants, which are used to give rides to tourists, have been taught vocal commands because of their "work," but not nonverbal ones. Byrne and another researcher, Anna Smet, presented the elephants with what's called an object-choice task. One of the researchers stood between two buckets, one empty and one containing food. When the researcher pointed to the bucket with the food, the elephants went to the food bucket 67.5 percent of the time. The test was performed repeatedly over the course of two months, and the researchers say they ruled out the possibility that the elephants learned pointing during the two-month experiment.

"What really surprised us is that they did not apparently need to learn anything," said Smet. "Their understanding was as good on the first trial as the last, and we could find no sign of learning over the experiment."

Some have raised questions about the study. The number of test subjects was small, and the fact that these elephants work so closely with humans means they may have learned pointing, that it isn't somehow hardwired into them. Diana Reiss, an elephant expert at Hunter College in New York, told the New York Times it was possible that the elephants learned the concept of pointing from their caretakers.  

"In these elephant camps such opportunities can easily go unnoticed by their human caretakers," said Reiss.

The 11 elephants tested by Byrne and Smet are essentially domesticated, so the researchers plan to perform more tests using wild elephants.

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