Elephants Understand Pointing Better Than Chimps

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Elephants understand pointing, even when they have no experience with humans. Photo used with permission from Anna Smet, all rights reserved.

If you ever need to show something to an elephant, just point to it and most likely he’ll understand what you mean. At least, that’s what a team of researchers from the University of St Andrew’s, UK concluded from their study.

Social Perception in Elephants

The results raise the interesting possibility that elephants have a much deeper social perception than we previously thought. “With  the possible exception of domestic dogs, no other animal spontaneously interprets pointing correctly,” says Prof Richard Byrne, lead author in the study, speaking to Decoded Science.

They have to learn it over many trials, and some, like the chimpanzee, are pretty poor even at doing that.

Finding elephants to conduct this study wasn’t easy. But after some perseverance, Prof Byrne’s PhD student, Anna Smet, found ‘Wild Horizons‘ in Victoria Fall, Zimbabwe. As an ethical enterprise, this group rescues elephants and use human training methods to get the animals used in gentle ’employment’ as riding elephants.

Studying Elephant Perceptions

During the study, every morning Smet would set up the buckets for the test. This was done in such a way that the animals could see her putting food in a bucket, but had no way of knowing which bucket it was. Each elephant was then presented with two buckets, but only one with food. When the animal was watching, Smet would point to the bucket containing the food and take note of which one the elephant attempted first. She found that the elephants picked the right bucket about 67.5% of the time.

One-year old human babies perform just slightly better at 72% in similar tests.

No Training: Elephants Just Understand Pointing

What’s so remarkable about this study is that the elephants did it naturally, without any previous training and showed no improvements during the study.”The elephants did not seem to need to learn how to understanding pointing, they were just as good on trial 1 as any other!” explains Byrne. This is highly unusual, as other species, even if they come to realise what pointing means, it’s after a few unsuccessful attempts at finding the food.

To find out how good elephants really were at understanding pointing, Byrne and Smet decided to make things a little harder. Instead of pointing directly to the bucket with food, Smet had to point to the bucket on the other side, with her arm crossing her body. This usually affects how good children are at this test, but elephants performed just as well.

Some animals were confused when Smet stood closer to the wrong bucket but still pointed to the other one, but most still found the bucket with food.

The only test that elephants couldn’t understand was when Smet simply looked at the bucket with food, but didn’t point. This is more likely to be caused by the elephant’s poor eyesight, rather than an inability to understand the movement, explain the authors.

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