Getting The Point: Elephants Understand Attention-Drawing Gesture
According to Discovery News, this latest find indicates just how intelligent the pachyderms are, since even the great apes, which include species like chimps and gorillas and are far more genetically similar to humans, often struggles with the notion of using pointing as a cue for finding food. Furthermore, the investigators reported that their work demonstrates that pointing is part of the elephant’s so-called visual vocabulary.
“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 animals very remote from the primates,” said study co-author Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews.
“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,” he added. “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, who wrote the study with graduate student Anna Smet, selected 11 elephants and put them through an elegant yet insightful test to determine whether the animals understand pointing. They utilized two identical containers and placed food in just one of them. They then pointed at the container that has the food in it, offering no verbal clues or other instructions, and waited to see if the creature approached the correct one.
Some types of animals, particularly domesticated animals such as dogs, have performed well in the trial over the years, Zimmer added. About a decade ago, Byrne first came up with the idea of putting elephants through the experiment. He and Smet finally had the opportunity to do so last year while on location in Zimbabwe. Every morning when the elephants were waiting to take tourists for a ride, Smet set up two buckets behind a screen. One of the elephant’s handlers would then lead one of the animals to within a few yards of Smet. The elephant stood by and watched as she lowered pieces of fruit behind the screen and into one of the two buckets. However, the elephant could not see which bucket she put the fruit in.
She would then bring out the containers and stand in the middle of them, pointing at the one with the fruit inside. The handler would walk the elephant towards the buckets, and the researchers would record which container it placed its trunk in first. This continued for two months, and when it was all said and done, the pachyderms selected the correct bucket 67.5 percent of the time (in comparison, human babies perform at a 72.5 percent success rate in similar tests).
“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 said. “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 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,” added Byrne. “This means that pointing is not a uniquely human part of the language system.”