New research shows elephants spontaneously understand the communicative intent of human pointing and can use it as a cue to find food.
Richard Byrne and Anna Smet of the University of St. Andrews tested 11 African elephants on what’s known as the object-choice task. In this task, a food reward is hidden in one of several containers and the experimenter signals which one by pointing to it.
People understand pointing, even as young children. But the track record of other animals on the object-choice task is mixed. Domesticated animals, such as dogs, cats, and horses, tend to perform better than wild ones. Even our closest relative, the chimpanzee, typically struggles to understand pointing when it’s used by human caretakers.
What’s so remarkable about the elephants’ success on the object-choice task is that they did it spontaneously. Byrne says that in studies of other species, the animals have had the opportunity to learn the task. This is usually during the experiment itself, which consists of a prolonged series of tests over which the animals come to realize they will get rewarded with food if they follow the line of the human’s pointing.