Elephants 'understand human gesture'

11.10.2013 15:21

In a series of tests, researcher Ann Smet,
of the University of St Andrews, offered
the animals a choice between two
identical buckets, then pointed at the
one containing a hidden treat.
From the first trial, the elephants chose
the correct bucket.
The results are published in the journal
Current Biology.
The scientists worked with captive
elephants at a lodge in Zimbabwe.
Prof Richard Byrne, a co-author on the
research, said the elephants had been
rescued from culling operations and
trained for riding.
"They specifically train the elephants to
respond to vocal cues. They don't use
any gestures at all," said Prof Byrne.
"The idea is that the handler can walk
behind the elephant and just tell it what
to do with words."
Despite this, the animals seemed to grasp
the meaning of pointing from the outset.
This makes them the only non-human
animals to understand the gesture
without being trained to do so.
In pervious studies, Prof Byrne said, our
closest primate cousins, the
chimpanzees, proved to be "hopeless" at
at similar task.
Ms Smet added that she had been
impressed by the animals' apparently
innate understanding of the gesture.
"Of course we had hoped that the
elephants would be able to learn to
follow human pointing, or we wouldn't
have done the experiment in the first
place," she said.
"But it was really surprising that they
didn't seem to have to learn anything.
"It seems that understanding pointing is
an ability elephants just possess naturally
and they are cognitively much more like
us than has been realised."
Prof Byrne said studying elephants
helped build a map of part of the
evolutionary tree that is very distant
from humans.
"They're so unrelated to us," he told BBC
News. "So if we find human-like abilities
in an animal like an elephant, that hasn't
shared a common ancestor with people
for more than 100 million years , we can
be pretty sure that it's evolved
completely separately, by what's called
convergent evolution."
The researchers said their findings might
explain how elephants have successfully
been tamed and have "historically had a
close bond with humans, in spite of
being potentially dangerous and
unmanageable due to their great size".
But the scientists added the results could
be a hint that the animals gesture to one
another in the wild with their "highly
controllable trunks".
Ms Smet told BBC News: "The next step
[in our research] is to test whether when
an elephant extends its trunk upwards
and outwards - as they regularly do, such
as when detecting a predator, this
functions as a point."