Elephants don't require
training to understand what it means when people point to something and are
able to use it as a cue to find food, new research finds.
The finding is especially
noteworthy given that many great apes do not understand what their human
caretakers mean when they point to something, according to the study.
"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 in Scotland,
said in a journal news release.
"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," Byrne
said. "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."
Pointing not uniquely human
Byrne and his colleagues
studied elephants who take tourists on rides in Southern Africa. The elephants
were trained to follow vocal commands, but hadn't been trained to understand
the meaning of 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," study first author Anna Smet
said in the news release. "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
The findings help explain
how humans have been able to use wild-caught elephants as work animals for
thousands of years.
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."
It's possible, the
researchers said, that elephants might use their long trunk to do something
The World Wildlife Fund has
more about elephants.