Elephants Can Understand And Follow Human Pointing

By Jessica Rawden 2013-10-10 15:07:23
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I don’t know how many times I’ve been hanging out with children only to chide them for pointing at another human being, maybe because they have a funny outfit on or are engaging in behaviors the children have been told not to engage in. We may chide our children about pointing sometimes, but pointing can be a useful behavior, helping individuals to communicate or to pay attention to a specific item or behavior. A recent study indicates that pointing is not only helpful to human interaction, elephants are also capable of understanding human gestures like pointing, even without being trained on how to recognize those gestures.

The University of St. Andrews’ Richard Byrne and Anna Smet headed to southern Africa where they spent time with 11 captive African elephants. To experiment with whether or not elephants were capable of understanding gestures, the two researchers put out two buckets of food and had Smet stand between them, choosing one bucket to point at and make eye contact with. According to National Geographic, the elephants were far more significantly likely to choose the bucket that Smet was pointing at.

The researchers then found out that even if Smet moved positions or used her forearm, hand or index finger, the elephant could follow along. The animals had all been trained in captivity to understand verbal instructions prior to the study, but researchers saw no instances where pointing was used. The pointing gestures may be similar to the elephant's use of its trunk to communicate, although researchers are currently unclear exactly what the movements of the trunk actually mean. The elephants were unable to discern what Smet was attempting to do when she used only eye contact to attempt to guide the elephants, further proving that the pointing was important.

Elephants are intelligent creatures and the fact that they can understand human gestures is not as surprising as it is impressive. A lot of domesticated animals, including dogs, cats, and even horses, are able to respond to human gestures. However, plenty of wild creatures, including chimpanzees, are unable to make the correlation. The next step that Byrne and Smet would like to accomplish is studying wild elephants to see if they are capable of understanding communications, as well. Byrne says he would like to continue with similar songs in the future.
"Evolution doesn't select for abilities that are [of] no use naturally, so it implies that the elephants must be able to understand their own behavior as pointing. It would be nice to go on and find exactly how elephants point for each other."

While we have no idea if further studies will be accomplished, it’s still cool to know that elephants get “the point.” You can check out the full results over at the journal Current Biology.
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