A toddler lifts a finger, pointing at a piece of food she wants that’s across the dinner table. The simple act of pointing is one of the first gestures we use to communicate with others, but for other animals, the action doesn’t imply much, if anything. Aside from some domesticated species, most animals—even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees—don’t understand what it means to point at something.
Now, though, University of St. Andrews biologist Richard W. Byrne has preliminary evidence to suggest that elephants might understanding human pointing. The study, which involved only 11 elephants, is just a brief entry in the long history of human-elephant interaction. Here’s Carl Zimmer, writing for The New York Times:
In the mid-2000s, Dr. Byrne began to wonder if elephants could pass the pointing test, too. He got the idea while he and a graduate student were conducting an experiment on wild elephants on Kenya. They found that elephants could distinguish the smells of people from hidden pieces of clothing. Sometimes, Dr. Byrne noticed, the elephants would curl up their trunks, aiming them at the source of the smell.
“Maybe they were pointing,” said Dr. Byrne. “But we don’t know that. They could be just sniffing the breeze.”
Scientists typically carry out a simple test to determine if an animal understands pointing: put food in two identical containers, point at one, and wait to see what happens. But because elephants are complicated beings, it wasn’t until last year that one of Dr. Byrne’s students, Ms. Smet, was able to run the test. She had elephants watch her lower pieces of fruit from behind a screen. Then she stood in between the buckets and pointed to the one containing the fruit.
For two months, Ms. Smet tested 11 elephants. When she crunched the data afterward, she found that the elephants picked the right bucket 67.5 percent of the time. (One-year-old human babies do a little better at these tests, scoring 72.7 percent.)
Ms. Smet found that the elephants could follow her pointing whether she stuck out her whole arm or just used her hand. And when she simply stood between the buckets, by contrast, the elephants stuck their trunks in the buckets at random.
Some researchers are skeptical about the findings, but Bryne and Smet want to push it further to see exactly how elephants can use pointing and what else it might say about their intelligence. The BBC has a brief video with more on human-elephant interactions.