Elephants understand pointing without any type of training. The findings that elephants comprehend the human gesture was discovered by a pair of scientists from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, The Guardian reports Oct. 11.
Prof Richard Byrne and his colleague, Anna Smet, believe elephants use their trunks to communicate the same way humans do when it comes to pointing. The report said that it "may have evolved from the complex social system elephants inhabit, which involves recognizing unspoken signals."
Elephants illustrate an ability to communicate with humans even though they are not domesticated like dogs, horses, and camels.
"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," said Prof. Byrne.
He added that elephants have formed a system of understanding when other elephants are trying to interact with them, and pointing is one of the gestures they fully interpret.
Byrne and Smet reportedly studied African elephants used in Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls to give tourists rides. They were trained to understand voice commands, but not pointing. The scientists discovered that elephants understood pointing when they spontaneously cued the animals on where to look for food.
"When people want to direct the attention of others, they will naturally do so by pointing, starting from a very young age," said Byrne. "Pointing is the most immediate and direct way that humans have for controlling others' attention.
"Most other animals do not point, nor do they understand pointing when others do it. 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."
Elephants not normally around humans were just as good at understanding pointing as those born in captivity or trained by humans, according to the experiment. It is still unclear if elephants really use their trunks as a means of pointing amongst one another, but Byrne describes them as being more like humans since they are "able to understand our characteristic way of indicating things in the environment by pointing."
Does this new study that elephants understand pointing surprise you?