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Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world
Sarah Zielinski
Wild Things

Some elephants get the point

African elephants get the point

African elephants can now be added to the list of animals that understand what it means when a human points.

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Not all animals understand what a human means when he points at something. Dogs get it, as do several other domesticated animals. Now we can add African elephants to that list.

The pointing test, known as the “object-choice” task, is one of the ways that scientists investigate whether animals, including humans, understand social cues. The set-up is simple: A reward, often food, is placed in one of two containers, and then an experimenter points at the container with the reward. If the animal being tested picks the correct container more than 50 percent of the time (the amount they would get through random picks), scientists interpret this as the animal understanding the gesture.

Scientists think that this ability to understand human pointing might be linked to domestication because many domesticated animals pass the test, but nonhuman primates do not. Domesticated animals might have evolved the ability to interpret human actions, or animals inclined to respond to people may have been the ones chosen for domestication. Elephants have never been domesticated, but they make an interesting test case because they can be tamed and trained to work with people.

Anna Smet and Richard Byrne of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland applied the object-choice task to a group of 11 African elephants housed at an organization in South Africa that provides elephant-back safaris. The elephants had been raised in captivity since infancy, and they were trained to understand only verbal cues. The results of the experiment were published October 10 in Current Biology.

When the research team set up the experiment, with Smet as the pointer, the elephants selected the correct container 67.5 percent of the time. That’s more than they would get by chance alone, and 1-year-old kids don’t do much better, only getting it right about 73 percent of the time. And the elephants got it even if Smet was standing closer to the empty container.

But not all elephants have passed this test. In a study published earlier this year by a group of scientists led by the University of Cambridge, Asian elephants given a similar object-choice task failed. The human pointers in this test were the mahouts (caretakers) who worked with the animals every day, and they were actually upset that their animals failed. Unlike the African elephants, these animals encountered both verbal cues and the occasional pointing gesture in their daily work.

Those researchers suggested that the Asian elephants might not have understood the gesticulations because the experimental setup was different from what they encounter every day. Smet and Byrne also point to experimental design and posit that the simpler setup of their experiment might explain the success with African elephants. Perhaps they should test some Asian elephants and see just what happens.

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