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Elephants get pointing, with no help, study finds

Oct. 10, 2013
Courtesy of Cell Press
and World Science staff

Ele­phants spon­ta­ne­ously get the gist of hu­man point­ing and can use it as a cue for find­ing food, re­search­ers re­port.

That’s all the more im­pres­sive giv­en that many great apes don’t un­der­stand hu­man care­tak­ers’ point­ing ges­tures, the sci­en­tists say. 

An experi­menter points out a buck­et of food to an ele­phant. (Credit: Anna F. Smet and Rich­ard W. Byrne)


A re­port pub­lished Sept. 16 on­line in the Jour­nal of Com­par­a­tive Psy­chol­o­gy said a hand­ful of wild chimps were seen pos­sibly “point­ing,” but the sig­nif­i­cance of the ges­tures re­mained un­cer­tain, its au­thors said. So did the mean­ing of point­ing-like be­hav­iors de­scribed in a 2008 study of wild dol­phins.

The el­e­phant find­ings are pub­lished Oct. 10 in the jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

“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” ours, said Rich­ard Byrne of the Uni­vers­ity of St. An­drews in the U.K., one of the au­thors.

Byrne—al­so a co-author of the Sept. 16 pa­per on chimps—noted that el­e­phants are part of an an­cient Af­ri­can line­age whose branches al­so in­clude the hy­rax, gold­en mole, aard­vark, and man­a­tee. 

Like peo­ple, el­e­phants “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 use­ful­ness, Byrne added.

Bi­ol­o­gists as­sess such be­hav­iors in ev­o­lu­tion­ary terms. Un­der ev­o­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry, in­di­vid­ual or­gan­isms that are bet­ter-suited to sur­viv­ing and re­pro­duc­ing in their en­vi­ron­ment tend to re­pro­duce more. They there­by spread their genes through their popula­t­ion. This even­tu­ally leads the whole popula­t­ion to be­come bet­ter adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment, a pro­cess called nat­u­ral se­lec­tion.

“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 said.

Byrne and co-author An­na Smet, al­so of St. An­drews, 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 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 that were more ex­perienced with hu­mans, or those born in cap­ti­vity, were no bet­ter than oth­ers at fol­lowing point­ing ges­tures, Byrne and Smet added. They say 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, said Byrne and Smet, help ex­plain why 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 an­i­mals don’t, the re­search­ers said.

“Ele­phants are cog­ni­tively much more like us than has been realized, ma­king them able to un­der­stand our char­ac­ter­is­tic way of in­di­cat­ing things,” Byrne said.


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Elephants spontaneously get the gist of human pointing and can use it as a cue for finding food, researchers report. That’s all the more impressive given that many great apes don’t understand human caretakers’ pointing gestures, the scientists say. A report published Sept. 16 online in the Journal of Comparative Psychology said a handful of wild chimps were seen possibly “pointing,” but the significance of the gestures remained uncertain, its authors said. So did the meaning of pointing-like behaviors reported in a 2008 study of wild dolphins. The elephant findings are published Oct. 10 in the research journal Current Biology. “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” ours, said Richard Byrne of the University of St. Andrews in the U.K., one of the authors. Byrne—also a co-author of the Sept. 16 paper on chimps—noted that elephants are part of an ancient African lineage whose branches also includes the hyrax, golden mole, aardvark, and manatee. Like people, elephants “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 usefulness, Byrne added. Biologists assess such behaviors in evolutionary terms. Under evolutionary theory, individual organisms that are better-suited to surviving and reproducing in their environment tend to reproduce more. They thereby spread their genes through their population. This eventually leads the whole population to become better adapted to their environment, a process called natural selection. “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 said. Byrne and co-author Anna Smet, also of St. Andrews, 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 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 that were more experienced with humans, or those born in captivity, were no better than others at following pointing gestures, Byrne and Smet added. They say 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, said Byrne and Smet, help explain why 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 animals don’t, the researchers said. “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 said.