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Wild Elephants Understand Human Pointing, Study

Update Date: Oct 10, 2013 04:50 PM EDT

Elephants have been long known to provide a means of entertainment for tourists all around the world. Their interaction with humans and trained understanding of voice commands by their care takers astonishes us. What is more astonishing is that recent studies show signs that elephants may understand the act of pointing with no training at all.    

"We always hoped that our elephant subjects - whose 'day job' is taking tourists for elephant-back rides near Victoria Falls - would be able to learn to follow human pointing," said graduate student and researcher Anna Smet from the University of St Andrews School of Psychology and Neuroscience in a news release in USA.

For their research, Smet and Richard Byrne, biologist and professor at the University of St Andrews set out to work with a group of 11 African elephants in Zimbabwe, whose jobs were to give rides to tourists. Out of the 11, seven of them could interpret human pointing to find food that was hidden from them, according to the study. 

"Elephants successfully interpreted pointing when the experimenters proximity to the hiding place was varied and when the ostensive pointing gesture was visually subtle, suggesting that they understood the experimenters communicative intent," said Smet and Byren in the study.  "The elephants native ability in interpreting social cues may have contributed to its long history of effective use by man."

To their fascination, researchers were surprised to see that the elephants responded to their pointing during their first try.

"Their understanding was as good on the first trial as the last, and we could find no sign of learning over the experiment," said Smet.

According to Bryne's research he said that most animals do not understand pointing when aimed at seeking their attention so one could identify why their study with elephants was an eye opener.

Bryne said most domestic animals learn the reason why owners point through basic training unlike the elephants who responded naturally.
In comparison to humans pointing, Smet said, "elephants do regularly make prominent trunk gestures, for instance when one individual detects the scent of a dangerous predator, but it remains to be seen whether those motions act in elephant society as 'points.'"

"Our findings suggest that elephants seem to understand us humans in a way most other animals don't," said Bryne.

The research and study is published in Current Biology

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