Most people, even young children, intuitively know how to interpret the gesture of pointing. On the other hand, this action is generally not understood by members of the animal kingdom, unless they are domesticated and have learned, to a certain extent, human behavior. Even chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, have difficulty understanding pointing when it is used by caretakers.
However, new research has shown that elephants, like humans, have an automatic understanding of pointing and can use the gestures to locate food. Two University of St. Andrews researchers, Richard Bryne and Anna Smet, tested eleven African elephants with an “object-choice” test. They hid food in one of several scattered containers to see if the animals could locate their treats after the correct container was indicated with a point.
To the researchers’ great surprise, the elephants could immediately locate the food after only one point. In most animal studies, the test subjects must be slowly taught the process of responding to a certain cue to receive their reward. The elephants, on the other hand, immediately understood and showed no learning curve throughout the test rounds.
Bryne and Smet also found that the elephants intuitively understood pointing whether they were raised in the wild or in captivity. As the researchers mixed up and complicated the types of pointing – across body, behind the back, with opposing arms – the elephants continued to understand and perform perfectly on the tests.
As humans and elephants are only very distant relatives, the findings imply that both species have independently evolved the pointing behavior due to our mutually large and complex social circles. It is possible that the elephants interpreted the researchers’ pointing as their form of “trunk pointing” and were able to understanding the meaning as if speaking to another elephant.
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