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

Cambodia Seeks Official UN Maps for Vietnam Border

Notice of request comes as 2 countries open border talks Tuesday after a clash last month More

From South Africa to Vietnam, Cyclists Deliver Message Against Rhino Horns

Appalled by poaching they saw firsthand, sisters embark on tour to raise awareness in countries where rhino horn products are in demand More

Uber Wants Johannesburg Police Protection

Request follows recent protests outside ride-hailing service's Johannesburg office 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.
New Implant Could Help Restore Movement to Paralyzed Limbsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
Maia Pujara
July 07, 2015 10:01 PM
A half-million people suffer spinal cord injuries each year because of car accidents, serious falls and diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers are now working on a soft but strong spinal cord implant that could one day restore movement in paralyzed individuals. VOA’s Maia Pujara reports.
Video

Video New Implant Could Help Restore Movement to Paralyzed Limbs

A half-million people suffer spinal cord injuries each year because of car accidents, serious falls and diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Researchers are now working on a soft but strong spinal cord implant that could one day restore movement in paralyzed individuals. VOA’s Maia Pujara reports.
Video

Video Getting it Done Beyond a Nuclear Deal

If a nuclear deal is reached between Iran and world powers in Vienna, it will be a highly technical road map to be used to monitor nuclear activity in Iran for years to come to ensure Tehran does not make nuclear weapons. Equally as complicated will be dismantling international sanctions that were originally intended to be ironclad. VOA’s Heather Murdock talks to experts about the key challenges any deal will present.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.

VOA Blogs