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

Nigeria Incumbent in Tight Spot as Poll Nears

Muhammadu Buhari is running a strong challenge to Goodluck Jonathan, amid a faltering economy and Boko Haram security worries More

Video Liberia's Almost-Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo tells VOA that despite her fame, life is still a struggle as she waits for government's promise of support to arrive More

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

At least seven different indigenous groups in Ratanakiri depend mainly on forest products for their survival, say they face loss of their land, traditional way of life 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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More