If you subtly point somewhere, guess who sometimes gets confused and focuses on your elbow? Dogs and chimps. Who doesn’t get confused: 2-year-olds. Aaaaand, as new research shows, elephants. According to io9:
New research now shows African elephants can do something no other wild animal has been shown to do: They can understand human pointing gestures without any kind of training.
Evolutionary psychologists Richard Byrne and Anna Smet just published their findings in Current Biology, including the following highlights:
- African elephants can use human pointing cues to find hidden food
- Success is immediate, despite few prior learning opportunities
- Pointing is followed even when human’s body position conflicts with point direction
Byrne and Smet found that the elephants’ age and whether they’d been domesticated had no significant effect on how well they understood pointing. They just instinctively got it. Why? In part, probably because elephants have to get each other’s social cues to survive, io9 speculates. After all, elephants themselves point:
Elephants use their trunks to “scent the breeze,” and if they are alarmed by anything — such as the scent of a lion — they will put their trunks above their heads in an ‘S’ shape, with the tip pointing in the direction of the smell.
And here I thought they were just waving hi.
Elephants understand what we mean when we point, Treehugger.
Another remarkable example of how smart elephants are, io9.
Get Grist in your inbox