African Elephants Innately Understand Pointing

After their first year, baby elephants are smarter than chimpanzees

An African Elephant.  Photo by Arno Meintjes via Flickr Creative Commons.  

By the time a baby turns one year old, he can usually understand what Mom is trying to say when she points at an object to pick up. However, that same understanding is not widely shared in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relative – the chimpanzee – fails to get the point. 

According to a recent study published in Current Biology, there is a new animal that innately understands the purpose of the gesture: the African Elephant.  Up until now, only domesticated animals, like dogs, have had the ability to interpret such human body language. 

Researchers from the University of St. Andrews studied 11 captive elephants that worked for the company called Wild Horizons.  The elephants take tourists on rides near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and although the animals had been trained to follow vocal commands, they were not accustomed to hand signals. (Anna Smet, study co-author and doctoral student, observed the handlers with the elephants over three months, to make sure hand-gestures were never used.)  


Anna Smet points to a bucket for the elephant.  Photo courtesy of Current Biology, Smet et al.

For the experiments, Smet hid fruit behind a screen in one of two buckets, and then brought the containers out for the elephants to see. She stood midway between the two buckets and used her arm to point towards the one that contained the food.  The elephant would then approach and pick a bucket.

They chose the correct bucket 67.5 percent of the time.  (For reference, in similar tests, one-year-old babies get the answer right 72.7 percent of the time). The elephants continued to get it right even when Smet varied her position and her hand gestures.  Their understanding of the hand signal was also the same in the first trial as the last, allowing the researchers to rule out the possibility that the elephants were merely learning to understand the pointing gesture – they understood it innately. 

These new findings might help explain why people have been so reliant on elephants throughout history for transport, such as the elephants in this study, or even war. For example, some archeologists believe that in 218 B.C. Hannibal’s army may have crossed the Alps riding African elephants. However, unlike horses, dogs and camels, elephants have never been bred as work animals.  Instead, the researchers said, these wild-caught elephants seem to have a natural capacity to interact and understand us.

As to why the elephants are able to inherently understand the gesture, scientists still do not know.  The animals use their trunks for many purposes including smelling, breathing, drinking and grabbing things like potential meals. They have also been observed gesturing regularly with their trunks, but it will take further research to see if those motions are the elephant equivalent of pointing.  However, it is clear that these enormous creatures, like us, live in a complex network or society, where support, empathy and help from each other is critical to survival.  The researchers posit that perhaps pointing is something that they do to communicate with each other, just as we do.  In fact, study co-author Richard Byrne hopes to study the behavior of wild elephants to investigate just that.