A new study reveals that elephants appear to understand the point of pointing

11.10.2013 17:08

We point to things without giving much
thought to what a sophisticated act it
really is. By simply extending a finger,
we can let other people know we want
to draw their attention to an object,
and indicate which object it is.
As sophisticated as pointing may be,
however, babies usually learn to do it
by their first birthday. “If you don’t get
that they’re drawing your attention to
an object, they’ll get cross,” said
Richard W. Byrne, a biologist at the
University of St Andrews.
When scientists test other species, they
find that pointing is a rare gift in the
animal kingdom. Even our closest
relatives, like chimpanzees, don’t seem
to get the point of pointing.
But Dr. Byrne and his graduate student
Anna Smet now say they have
discovered wild animals that also
appear to understand pointing:
elephants. The study, involving just 11
elephants, is hardly the last word on
the subject. But it raises a provocative
possibility that elephants have a deep
social intelligence that rivals humans’
in some ways.
Researchers use a simple but powerful
test to see if animals understand
pointing. They put food in one of two
identical containers and then silently
point at the one with food in it. Then
they wait to see which container the
animal approaches.
While primates and most other animals
that have been studied fail the test, a
few have done well. Most of them are
domesticated mammals, with dogs
proving to be especially good at
understanding pointing.
These results have prompted some
researchers to speculate that during
domestication, animals evolve to
become keenly aware of humans.
Others have made a different
argument: they propose that the wild
ancestors of species like dogs were
already keenly aware of each other. In
fact, that pre-existing capacity may
have made those wild species easy to
In the mid-2000s, Dr. Byrne began to
wonder if elephants could pass the
pointing test, too. He got the idea while
he and a graduate student were
conducting an experiment on wild
elephants on Kenya. They found that
elephants could distinguish the smells
of people from hidden pieces of
clothing. Sometimes, Dr. Byrne noticed,
the elephants would curl up their
trunks, aiming them at the source of the
“Maybe they were pointing,” said Dr.
Byrne. “But we don’t know that. They
could be just sniffing the breeze.”
The logical way to start exploring this
possibility would be to give elephants
the pointing test. But these giant
mammals are a lot more challenging to
work with than a poodle. In fact, it
wasn’t until last year that one of Dr.
Byrne’s students, Ms. Smet, was able to
run the test.
Ms. Smet traveled to Zimbabwe, where
a company called Wild Horizons offers
elephant-back safaris. Each morning,
while the elephants were waiting to
take tourists on a trip, Ms. Smet would
set up two buckets behind a screen.
An elephant handler would bring one
of the animals a few yards away from
her. The elephant watched Ms. Smet
lower pieces of fruit behind the screen
and put them into one of the buckets.
But the elephant couldn’t see which
bucket she put the fruit in.
“I actually checked that from elephant
height,” Ms. Smet said.
Ms. Smet then brought the buckets out
from behind the screen and stood
between them. She pointed at the one
with the fruit inside, and the handler
walked the elephant toward the
buckets. Ms. Smet noted which bucket it
stuck its trunk in first.
For two months, Ms. Smet tested 11
elephants. When she crunched the data
afterward, she found that the elephants
picked the right bucket 67.5 percent of
the time. (One-year-old human babies
do a little better at these tests, scoring
72.7 percent.)
Ms. Smet found that the elephants could
follow her pointing whether she stuck
out her whole arm or just used her
hand. And when she simply stood
between the buckets, by contrast, the
elephants stuck their trunks in the
buckets at random.
Ms. Smet and Dr. Byrne published their
results Thursday in the journal Current
The scientists were able to rule out the
possibility that the elephants learned to
associate pointing with food over the
course of the experiments. “They were
just as good on trial one,” said Dr.
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.
“In these elephant camps such
opportunities can easily go unnoticed
by their human caretakers,” said Dr.
Dr. Byrne and Ms. Smet plan to address
this question and investigate whether
wild elephants can point to each other.
“It makes us want to revisit visual
signals by elephants for elephants,”
said Ms. Smet.
Dr. Byrne is also curious to know
whether any other highly social wild
mammals can also pass the pointing
test. Whales and dolphins would be at
the top of his list, but he isn’t holding
his breath for those experiments to be
published. “They make elephants look
easy to work with,” he said.