Elephants require zero instruction to understand human pointing, according to a new study that demonstrates just how smart these large mammals are.
To put this into perspective, many great apes fail to understand human pointing, and they are genetically closer to us.
The study, published in the latest Current Biology, not only demonstrates how smart elephants are, but it also indicates that pointing is in their visual “vocabulary” too.
“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,” Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews, who worked on the study, said in a press release.
He noted that elephants are part of an ancient African radiation of animals, including the hyrax, golden mole, aardvark and manatee.
Byrne continued, “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 co-author Anna Smet made the discovery while studying elephants whose “day job” is taking tourists on elephant-back rides near Victoria Falls, southern Africa. The elephants did receive training on some basic vocal commands, but didn’t have any lessons on 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.”
The researchers had seen elephants gesturing around with their trunks, but no one has yet placed any meaning to those movements. Now you have to wonder that the elephants are telling each other, “Hey, look over there,” “Look here,” and so on, all with this simple yet important gesture.
Elephants are hardly house pet material, but people who regularly interact with them are blown away by their intelligence.
“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. “This means that pointing is not a uniquely human part of the language system.”
Photo: Elephants can use pointing as a cue to find food; Credit: Anna F. Smet and Richard W. Byrne