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Elephants Understand Pointing

October 22, 2013

Elephants, unlike mammals much more similar to us, seem to instinctively understand pointing gestures.



Pachyderms and pointing.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

The highly social nature of elephants may help them understand pointing. (Richard Mortel/Flickr)

Despite their communication skills, our ape cousins don’t understand finger-pointing, and usually can’t even learn to. So researchers from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland were surprised to discover that elephants get it. Evolutionary psychologist Richard Byrne and his student Anna Smet found that elephants could find hidden food when humans pointed toward it – even though they’d never been trained to follow pointing at all.

RICHARD BYRNE (University of St. Andrews, Scotland):

We also found that wild-born ones were just as good as captive born, and the number of years they’d spent in captivity didn’t make any difference to their performance on our task.

Byrne notes that while ape societies are very competitive, elephant societies rely on cooperation, and they use their trunks in ways that might function as helpful gestures. So they may be better prepared to understand the human version.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.