Elephants found to understand human pointing without training

A study by researchers from the University St Andrews has found that elephants are the only wild animals that can understand human pointing without being trained.

In the study, published in Current Biology, the researchers show that a group of 11 captive Zimbabwean elephants, which were used to following vocal instructions but weren’t trained to respond to pointing, could find hidden food by interpreting where humans were pointing.

According to the study: “elephants successfully interpreted pointing when the experimenter’s proximity to the hiding place was varied and when the ostensive pointing gesture was visually subtle, suggesting that they understood the experimenter’s communicative intent.”

The results prove that the ability to understand pointing is not a uniquely human trait. Pointing in humans is a behaviour that develops at a very early age – usually before a child reaches 12 months – as it is an immediate way of

controlling the attention of others. “Most other animals do not point, nor do they understand pointing when others do it,” says Professor Richard Byrne, one of the authors of the study. “Even our closest relatives, the great apes, typically fail to understand pointing when it’s done for them by human carers; in contrast, the domestic dog, adapted to working with humans over many thousands of years and sometimes selectively bred to follow pointing, is able to follow human pointing – a skill the dogs probably learn from repeated, one-to-one interactions with their owners.”

Originally the researchers had hoped that the elephants would be able to learn to respond to human pointing, but it turned out that that they could interpret pointing signals without needing to be trained. One reason for this could be that elephants use their trunks to gesticulate themselves. “Elephants do regularly make prominent trunk gestures, for instance when one individual detects the scent of a dangerous predator, but it remains to be seen whether those motions act in elephant society as ‘points’,” says Anna Smet, another author of the study.

It’s not clear exactly how much is already known about the extent to which elephants use their

trunks to signal to one other.

WIRED has asked the team at St Andrews to clarify this issue, as well as enquiring as to whether they will continue to investigate if elephants use pointing, and will update this article if we hear back.

Elephants are highly intelligent and exhibit a wide range of sophisticated behaviours, including empathy, problem solving and altruism. Similarities between the structure and complexity of human and elephant brains may even suggest convergent evolution, according to a 2009 study published in the journal PNAS. “It has long been a puzzle that one animal, the elephant, doesn’t seem to need domestication in order to learn to work effectively with humans,” says Byrne. “Our findings suggest that elephants seem to understand us humans in a way most other animals don’t.”

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 оценок, среднее: 5.00 из 5)

Elephants found to understand human pointing without training