Elephants Understand What We Mean When We Point

We know elephants are incredibly smart, emotionally complex animals. Yet they never cease to amaze us as we learn more about just how intelligent they are. They can do something no other wild animal has been proven to do — they get what we mean when we point at something. A wild elephant with no training understands what a human is trying to communicate when we point.

This might be something easy to scoff at, at first. Hey, our arms look like their trunks so of course! Or hey, my dog knows what I’m communicating when I point, what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that pointing is not such an instinctive form of communication for animals. Even our close relative the chimpanzee doesn’t get right away that we are trying to indicate for them to acknowledge something aligned with but apart from our pointing finger. And even for dogs, who are so brilliant with reading our pointing gesture, have had thousands of years of domestication and daily training to get what that gesture means.

So consider again: an undomesticated animal with no training innately understanding a relatively complex communicative gesture. That’s amazing!

io9 reports, “[Richard Byrne, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the U.K.] and his colleague Anna Smet wondered if African elephants might hold the key to the answer. These incredibly smart giants live in complex social groups, where understanding social cues from each other is necessary for survival. What’s more, they readily form working relationships with humans, but have never been domesticated… The research suggests that the capacity to understand human pointing gestures may explain why elephants have a long history of working closely with humans, and that domestication isn’t exactly necessary for the ability to arise. The research also suggests pointing may be part of elephants’ natural communication system.”

What is exceptionally amazing is how elephants responded in the experiment compared to similar experiments done on dogs and chimpanzees: “In previous experiments with dogs and chimpanzees, the animals incorrectly used the elbow direction as a cue. Two-year-old children, on the other hand, don’t follow the elbow or the pointing the elephants behaved similar to the children.”

Just. Wow.

We really can never underestimate the amazing intelligence of these creatures.

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by Jaymi Heimbuch, from Treehugger


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Donna Ferguson
Donna F3 years ago


Klaus Peters
Klaus Peters3 years ago

Yet we kill them by the thousands for their ivory.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred H3 years ago

Thank you Kara, for Sharing this

Siti R.
Siti R3 years ago

"These incredibly smart giants live in complex social groups, where understanding social cues from each other is necessary for survival." it is no wonder we humans, being engrossed into mechanical devices are too oblivious to cues.

heather g.
heather g3 years ago

We won't have elephants and rhinos with us for much longer, if the Asian/Chinese gangsters and traders continue to kill them and mutilate them in the African countries.

Something is dreadfully amiss with their lack of compassion and their education if they think that the keratin-like substance in the horns has health benefits. Their operations are worse than the Mafia and more like the underworld of illegal drug supplies.

Instead of drones used to kills thousands of innocent people each day, it would be an enormous help if African countries could be given drones to protect these wonderful, intelligent animals.

June Bostock
June Bostock3 years ago

Animals are great!!

Karen G3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Ben B.
Ben B3 years ago

Extraordinary, truly amazing that a wild animal can understand such a non-intuitive and complex gesture, i.e. for the elephant. A wonderful example of communication between species. In light of this, as a reflection of their intelligence, it fills me with deep sadness that some people kill such beautiful animals to commercially exploit their tusks and that some people drive the market for ivory with their demand for ivory products and, further, that some governments sit idly by and allow such trade to flourish between their country and ivory exporting countries. The inhumane treatment of elephants by some reflects badly on all.

JoAnn Paris
JoAnn Paris3 years ago

We really SHOULD never underestimate the amazing intelligence of these creatures. I agree!