Elephants spontaneously understand the concept of pointing, new research has found — greatly underscoring the great observed similarities between elephant and human cognition. Especially when you consider that while the great apes are all known to make use of the gesture when raised in a culture that uses it (such as in human captivity) it has rarely been observed in wild populations — whereas wild elephant populations appear to rely considerably on the concept/gesture, not just those in captivity.
The elephants appear to use the concept as a means of communicating food sources/travel options, according to the researchers.
“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,” states Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews, while noting that elephants are only very distantly related to humans, being much closer to hyraxes, golden moles, aardvarks, and sea cows like the manatee and dugong. “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. 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.”
The new research was done while working with elephants that were used as transportation for tourists on elephant-back rides near Victoria Falls, in southern Africa. The animals had been “trained” to respond to vocal commands but weren’t accustomed to 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,” states first author Anna Smet. “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 experiment.”
The University of St Andrews provides more:
Elephants that were more experienced with humans, or those born in captivity, were no better than less-experienced, wild-born individuals when it came to following pointing gestures. Byrne and Smet say it is possible that elephants may do something akin to pointing as a means of communicating with each other, using their long trunk. Elephants do regularly make prominent trunk gestures, but it remains to be seen whether those motions act in elephant society as “points.”
The findings help to explain how it is that humans have been able to rely on wild-caught elephants as work animals, for logging, transport, or war, for thousands of years. Elephants have a natural capacity to interact with humans even though — unlike horses, dogs, and camels — they have never been bred or domesticated for that role. Elephants seem to understand us humans in a way most other animals don’t.
“Elephants are 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,” explains Byrne. “This means that pointing is not a uniquely human part of the language system.”
For information on elephant communication and cognition, see: Elephant Communication, Mechanisms Behind Calls Unraveled
The new findings were just detailed in a paper published in the Cell Press publication Current Biology.