Elephants Understand Us When We Point

And they don't even have to be taught

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Oct 11, 2013 5:08 AM CDT

(Newser) – Researchers have found that when a human points, elephants understand her—without requiring any training. "It seems that understanding pointing is an ability elephants just possess naturally, and they are cognitively much more like us than has been realized," says a researcher. She tested their ability by putting a treat in one of two buckets. She pointed at the correct one, and the elephants—captive in Zimbabwe—understood right away, the BBC reports.

In similar tests, other animals have gradually learned to understand pointing, but it didn't appear that elephants were learning anything as the experiments continued, Wired notes. When chimpanzees did a comparable test, they were "hopeless," the researcher says; the New York Times points out that dogs are generally good at understanding pointing. It's possible that elephants point with their trunks to communicate with each other in the wild; or maybe, as some experts have speculated, they've picked up on human pointing while living in captivity. In the future, the researchers would like to test dolphins and whales—but that's easier said than done. (In other fascinating elephant research, recorded tiger growls can actually help keep them safe.)

Elephants can understand it when we point, a study suggests.
Elephants can understand it when we point, a study suggests.   (Shutterstock)
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