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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)
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:

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