Responding to someone pointing comes naturally to even very young humans, and dogs as well as chimpanzees can be trained to do so. But elephants seem to “get it” right away.
Researchers from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews tested captive animals in Zimbabwe by presenting them with two buckets — one containing food.
When the bucket containing food was pointed to, the test elephants chose the correct bucket 68 percent of the time.
That’s about the same performance level as a 1-year-old human, who typically chooses correctly 73 percent of the time.
“Of course we had hoped that the elephants would be able to learn to follow human pointing, or we wouldn't have done the experiment in the first place,” said researcher Ann Smet. “But it was really surprising that they didn't seem to have to learn anything.”
Elephants have long been observed pointing their trucks in gestures most believed were associated with sniffing out their surroundings.
But the University of St. Andrews researchers plan to study whether these gestures are actually acts of communication as well.
Photo: University of St. Andrews