Elephants Understand Us (So Why Do We Keep Killing Them?)
In yet more proof of elephants’ social intelligence, a new study shows that they are one of the few animals who understand pointing. What’s more, elephants understand this human gesture without training.
Chimpanzees and seals can be taught to understand pointing but only after hours of training. The elephants’ apparent ability to recognize pointing is also notable as their eyesight is relatively poor; they rely primarily on their senses of smell and hearing.
This latest discovery about how smart elephants are makes it all the more urgent to fight against poachers who threaten the majestic mammals’ very existence.
What’s So Special About Pointing?
Pointing is something that most of us do without thinking. Such a small motion of a finger conveys a lot of information, enabling one person to direct someone else’s attention to something, all without words.
While pointing comes naturally to most humans, it was a skill we had to teach my severely autistic son Charlie when he was a toddler. He’s a teenager now and, while he understands that pointing his finger at something is a way of directing attention to where he wants to go or what he wants, he sometimes uses multiple fingers (or his whole hand). People who know Charlie well “get his point” but many don’t as he doesn’t point in a conventional way.
Challenges of Testing If Elephants Understand Pointing
The study by Richard W. Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews, and his graduate student, Anne Smet is small, involving only eleven elephants in Zimbabwe at a company called Wild Horizons, which offers elephant-back safaris. Byrne had previously noted that wild elephants seem able to identify different people (specifically, those who hunt them versus those who do not) based on the smell of their clothing.
To test whether animals understand pointing, scientists have often performed a simple test, placing food in two identical containers, pointing to the one containing it and seeing which container the animal goes to. Due to their massive size, testing elephants’ understanding of pointing involved some preparations.
Smet tested the elephants in Zimbabwe by setting up two buckets behind a screen. They were able to see that she put some fruit into the buckets behind the screen. She then brought the two buckets out from behind the screen, stood between them and pointed to the one containing fruit. A handler walked the elephant towards the buckets and Smet noted which one the elephant struck first with its trunk.
67.5 percent of the time, the elephants went for the bucket with the fruit. In comparison, a young human child chooses the correct bucket 73 percent of the time.
The study is by no means the final word about elephants and pointing. The elephants studied were not wild; Diana Reiss, an expert on elephant cognition at Hunter College, points out that “in these elephant camps such opportunities can easily go unnoticed by their human caretakers.” Another study published early this year (which used a somewhat more complicated testing procedure) found that Asian elephants did not understand pointing. Byrne and Smet hope to try to test them with the same procedure as they used on the elephants in Zimbabwe.
What Other Animals Understand Pointing?
When tested, dogs understand pointing better than chimpanzees, an earlier study has found. This finding has led scientists to wonder: have dogs, over years of domestication, evolved to be highly aware of humans? Or did their wild ancestors have some “pre-existing capacity” which may have made it easier to domesticate them?
While elephants and humans have lived together for 4,000 to 8,000 years, they have never been domesticated as have horses, cows, cats or dogs. Elephants’ ability to understand pointing seems to be inherent to them. Byrne and Smet plan to continue their research to see if wild elephants point to each other by raising their trunks.
Previous studies — including research about how elephants work in teams to complete a task — have underscored how social elephants are (two elephants have taught their offspring to paint). Elephants seeming to understand pointing is yet another sign of their social intelligence. Could this research be the basis for beginning to think of elephants as being, as has been proposed for cetaceans, “non-human persons,” a status that could provide them with more protections against poachers?
Photo from Thinkstock