News / Science & Technology

Elephants Understand Human Gestures

An African savanna elephant is seen in this undated photograph. New research indicates the animals are able to understand human gestures without training. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)
An African savanna elephant is seen in this undated photograph. New research indicates the animals are able to understand human gestures without training. (Julie Larsen Maher/WCS)

Related Articles

Kenya Seizes 1,600 Pieces of Ivory

The four metric tons of ivory were hidden in sesame seed bags being transported from Uganda

Kenyan Makes 900-Km US Trek to Fight Elephant Poaching

Man crosses northeastern US on foot, stopping along the way to tell people how growing demand for ivory fuels poaching

Elephants Killed by Cyanide Reveal Alarming Innovation in Poaching Tactics

Undermanned and underequipped ranger teams face a difficult battle as poachers start using poisons to kill elephants
VOA News
Elephants are able to recognize human gestures without any sort of training, new research shows.  Scientists believe the finding indicates that elephants are able to understand humans in a way most other animals do not.

Researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland set out to see if elephants could learn to follow pointing, but they were surprised to find the elephants understood the gesture from the very first time.

“In our study we found that African elephants spontaneously understand human pointing, without any training to do so,” the researchers write. “This has 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.”

The elephants used in the study were from Zimbabwe and were used to give rides to tourists. They were trained to follow vocal commands for that task, but were not accustomed to pointing, the researchers said.

“We always hoped that our elephant subjects – whose ‘day job’ is taking tourists for elephant-back rides near Victoria Falls – would be able to learn to follow human pointing,” said Anna Smet who worked on the research. “But 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.”

While elephants don’t have fingers to use for pointing the researchers think it’s possible that elephants use their trunks.

“Elephants do regularly make prominent trunk gestures, for instance when one individual detects the scent of a dangerous predator, but it remains to be seen whether those motions act in elephant society as ‘points,’” said Smet.

Elephants live in highly social groups in which support and empathy are vital for their survival. The researchers say that it may be only in such a society that the ability to follow pointing has adaptive value.

“When people want to direct the attention of others, they will naturally do so by pointing, starting from a very young age,” said Professor Richard Byrne from St. Andrews’ School of Psychology and Neuroscience. “Pointing is the most immediate and direct way that humans have for controlling others’ attention.”

Byrne added that most other animals do not understand pointing. This includes some of our closest relatives like the great apes. Dogs, on the other hand, have adapted to work with humans over thousands of years, with some having been bred to specifically follow pointing. Byrne said this skill is learned, over time, from repeated one-on-one interactions with humans.

The findings help explain how humans have been able to rely on wild-caught elephants as work animals, for logging, transport, or war for thousands of years.

“It has long been a puzzle that one animal, the elephant, doesn’t seem to need domestication in order to learn to work effectively with humans,” said Byrne. “They 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. Our findings suggest that elephants seem to understand us humans in a way most other animals don’t.”

Here's a video about the study:

 

You May Like

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 Million by January

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: gerardo from: Göttingen Germany
October 18, 2013 7:44 PM
First, they state that the ability to follow pointing could have evolved in Elephants because Elephants live in highly social groups in which support and empathy are vital for their survival and that ability has adaptive value. But great apes, also living in highly social groups and close related to humans, lack of that ability.
Second, they state that dogs have the ability to follow pointing perhaps because they have adapted to work with humans over thousands of years, that means co-evolved with humans? or as a learned skill? but elephants have a natural ability to interact with humans even though they have never been bred or domesticated for that role. My "more plausible" explanation is that elephants have been domesticated by humans over thousand of years and like dogs co-evolving or adapting to work with humans.
Third, as pointed out by Max, the elephants weren't wild-caught but domesticated one


by: Cranksy from: USA
October 12, 2013 12:18 PM
Max from: SCM,
This is from The New York Times: Other researchers were intrigued but cautious about drawing conclusions from the study. Diana Reiss, an expert on elephant cognition at Hunter College, wondered if the elephants had already learned about pointing by observing their handlers pointing to each other.


by: Max from: SCM
October 12, 2013 12:41 AM
If the elephants used were riding elephants isn't it entirely possible that they did actually learn about human pointing through their years of watching us humans point?


by: Kitagawa Keikoh from: Daikanyama, T-site
October 11, 2013 8:36 PM
According to the research, the elephant seems to be pointing like humans. But did they confirm the elephant what really means ?
What is a good thing for us from this finding ?
How many times do you communicate with elephants in your life ?

It seems to me they are just wasting time.


by: kirbang from: Atlanta GA US
October 11, 2013 2:45 PM
YES that s why shooting them in the face (or anywhere) is immoral.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid