Another remarkable example of how smart elephants are

Elephants are widely regarded as one of the world's most intelligent creatures, able to use tools, show grief and exhibit remarkable memory. 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.

When someone looks and points at something, we instinctively know that they are trying to convey some meaningful information about whatever they're pointing at. Research even shows that children as young as 12 months old can comprehend human pointing gestures.

Of course, we're not the only animals that understand pointing. In various studies, scientists have taught numerous domesticated animals, including cats, goats and horses, to follow human pointing to find food. Dogs, unsurprisingly, are a cut above the rest and consistently perform better than other animals on pointing trials (including chimpanzees), and they even seem to learn to understand human pointing without any directed training.

"The thing is about dogs is that we constantly interact with them on a one-to-one basis," said Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K. Dogs are constantly watching our movements, so they can quickly learn what pointing means just by our repeated interactions with them, he said.

Given all this information, scientists have hypothesized that the capacity to read human social-communicative signals evolved during domestication. An alternative or complementary theory suggests that only those species that were able to understand human-like social cues could be successfully domesticated. Take dogs, for example. Their ancestors were group hunters — this form of hunting benefits greatly from the ability to read cues from group members or prey, making them perfect for domestication.

Despite a lot of research on the subject, it's still unclear what role domestication plays in the matter. So Byrne and his colleague Anna Smet wondered if African elephants might hold the key to the answer. These incredibly smart giants live in complex social groups, where understanding social cues from each other is necessary for survival. What's more, they readily form working relationships with humans, but have never been domesticated.

Testing Elephants

The research pair ran a series of experiments to test if African elephants can understand pointing gestures. They tested 11 animals, which were already trained to give tourists elephant-back rides near Victoria Falls in southern Africa. The training is based exclusively on vocal commands — over three months of interacting with the elephants and their handlers, the researchers never observed pointing being used to direct the animals.

Byrne and Smet started off with a simple task. They had an experimenter stand in between two buckets, both of which smelled of food. Behind a barrier, she dumped food in both of the buckets, and then quietly removed the food from one of the buckets. "We wanted to be careful to make sure the elephants couldn't use sound or scent cues," Byrne told io9.

They then removed the barrier, and the experimenter pointed at the food-containing bucket. While pointing, she constantly alternated her gaze from the elephant to the correct bucket. Overall, the elephants followed the pointing cue and chose the baited bucket 67.5 percent of the time (comparatively, 12-month-old children can do this task correctly 72.7 percent of the time).

Next, the scientists wanted to test if the experimenter's body position had anything to do with the results. That is, if she stands in the middle of the buckets and points with her right arm to the right bucket (or vice versa), the elephants may see her as being closer in proximity to one of the buckets, and choose based on that information. So Byrne and Smet varied the experimenter's position in between the buckets.

"There was a slight bias due to bucket proximity," Byrne said. "They found it easier when she was standing next to the correct container, but overall they still followed the pointing."

Finally, the researchers decided to test if the way the experimenter pointed matters, because the pointing gesture in the previous experiments was unnatural. If you really wanted to point to something, you probably wouldn't use whatever hand is closer to the object — you'd preferentially use your right hand if you're right-handed and your left hand if you're left-handed, Bryne explained.

The experimenter tried out a few different ways of pointing (image left). The only arm position that tripped up the elephants was when the experimenter had her elbow pointing in the wrong direction. In previous experiments with dogs and chimpanzees, the animals incorrectly used the elbow direction as a cue. Two-year-old children, on the other hand, don't follow the elbow or the pointing — the elephants behaved similar to the children.

In other experiments, the researchers tested if gaze alone was enough to guide the elephants' choice. It wasn't. "They simply can't see that level of detail," Bryne said. "They don't have very good eyesight."

Pointing with Trunks?

Parsing the data, Bryne and Smet saw that the elephants' history with humans didn't matter. Some of the animals were born in captivity and spent many years with humans, while others were wild born and rescued from culling operations and other situations. But they did equally well on the tasks. Age made no difference either.

What this means, essentially, is that African elephants can understand human pointing gestures with no prior training. Another recent study concluded that Asian elephants cannot follow pointing, but Bryne suggests the different findings may be due to a number of reasons, including procedural differences.

The research suggests that the capacity to understand human pointing gestures may explain why elephants have a long history of working closely with humans, and that domestication isn't exactly necessary for the ability to arise. The research also suggests pointing may be part of elephants' natural communication system. 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.

"It's always been interpreted as scenting the breeze, but may other elephants interpret it as a pointing gesture," Bryne said.

Check out the study in the journal Current Biology.

Top image via LaertesCTB/Flickr. Inset images via Bryne & Smet/Cell Press.