Elephants know what it means to point, no training required

October 10, 2013
When people want to direct the attention of others, they naturally do so by pointing, starting from a very young age. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, on October 10 have shown that elephants spontaneously get the gist of human pointing and can use it as a cue for finding food. That's all the more impressive given that many great apes fail to understand pointing when it's done for them by human caretakers, the researchers say. Credit: Anna F. Smet and Richard W. Byrne

When people want to direct the attention of others, they naturally do so by pointing, starting from a very young age. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on October 10 have shown that elephants spontaneously get the gist of human pointing and can use it as a cue for finding food. That's all the more impressive given that many great apes fail to understand pointing when it's done for them by human caretakers, the researchers say.

"By showing that African 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," says Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews, noting that elephants are part of an ancient African radiation of animals, including the hyrax, golden mole, aardvark, and manatee. "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. It may be only in such a society that the ability to follow pointing has adaptive value, or, more generally, elephant society may have selected for an ability to understand when others are trying to communicate with them, and they are thus able to work out what pointing is about when they see it."

Byrne and study first author Anna Smet were studying elephants whose "day job" is taking tourists on elephant-back rides near Victoria Falls, in southern Africa. The animals were trained to follow certain vocal commands, but they weren't accustomed to pointing.

"Of course, we always hoped that our elephants would be able to learn to follow human pointing, or we'd not have carried out the experiments," Smet says. "What really surprised us is that they did not apparently need to learn anything. Their understanding was as good on the first trial as the last, and we could find no sign of learning over the experiment."

Elephants that were more experienced with humans, or those born in captivity, were no better than less-experienced, wild-born individuals when it came to following pointing gestures. Byrne and Smet say it is possible that elephants may do something akin to pointing as a means of communicating with each other, using their long trunk. Elephants do regularly make prominent trunk gestures, but it remains to be seen whether those motions act in elephant society as "points."

The findings help to explain how it is that humans have been able to rely on wild-caught elephants as work animals, for logging, transport, or war, for thousands of years. Elephants have a natural capacity to interact with humans even though—unlike horses, dogs, and camels—they have never been bred or domesticated for that role. Elephants seem to understand us humans in a way most other don't.

"Elephants are cognitively much more like us than has been realized, making them able to understand our characteristic way of indicating things in the environment by pointing," Byrne says. "This means that pointing is not a uniquely human part of the language system."

Explore further: Relocating elephants fails to decrease human-wildlife conflict

More information: Current Biology, Smet et al.: "African elephants can use human pointing cues to find hidden food." dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.08.037

Related Stories

Relocating elephants fails to decrease human-wildlife conflict

December 12, 2012

Human–elephant conflict in Sri Lanka kills more than 70 humans and 200 Asian elephants every year. One of the most common tools in combating these conflicts is moving the elephants into ranges away from humans, often into ...

New research reveals how elephants 'see' the world

April 19, 2013

Think Elephants International, a not-for-profit organization that strives to promote elephant conservation through scientific research, education programming and international collaborations, today announced its latest study, ...

Thai police seize 16 'illegal' elephants

August 21, 2013

Thai police said Wednesday they had seized 16 elephants from tourist destinations as part of a nationwide swoop on operators suspected of using smuggled wild pachyderms for entertainment.

Crop-raiding elephants flee tiger growls

September 11, 2013

Wild Asian elephants slink quietly away at the sound of a growling tiger, but trumpet and growl before retreating from leopard growls, researchers at the University of California, Davis, have found. The work, published Sept. ...

Recommended for you

Plastic in 99 percent of seabirds by 2050

August 31, 2015

Researchers from CSIRO and Imperial College London have assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world's seabirds, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins, and found the majority of seabird species ...

Researchers unveil DNA-guided 3-D printing of human tissue

August 31, 2015

A UCSF-led team has developed a technique to build tiny models of human tissues, called organoids, more precisely than ever before using a process that turns human cells into a biological equivalent of LEGO bricks. These ...

Study shows female frogs susceptible to 'decoy effect'

August 28, 2015

(Phys.org)—A pair of researchers has found that female túngaras, frogs that live in parts of Mexico and Central and South America, appear to be susceptible to the "decoy effect." In their paper published in the journal ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

betterexists
1.6 / 5 (14) Oct 10, 2013
Did this Research get Paid? OR Was Done free of Cost?
What a Terrible waste of Money Indeed!
betterexists
1.3 / 5 (12) Oct 10, 2013
What a Bull is this Research!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.