Next time you're trying to convey an idea to an elephant, it may well help to simply point to things, according to a new study. This won't always work with other species - including our close relatives the great apes - but the brainy pachyderm will, erm, get the point straight away.
"By showing that African elephants spontaneously understand human pointing, without any training to do so, we have shown that the ability to understand pointing is not uniquely human but has also evolved in a lineage of animal very remote from the primates," says Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews.
Byrne notes that elephants are part of an ancient African tradiation of animals, including the hyrax, golden mole, aardvark, and manatee. Though he doesn't suggest that aardvarks et al will be similarly apt pupils on pointing.
"What elephants share with humans is that they live in an elaborate and complex network in which support, empathy, and help for others are critical for survival," says the prof. "It may be only in such a society that the ability to follow pointing has adaptive value, or, more generally, elephant society may have selected for an ability to understand when others are trying to communicate with them, and they are thus able to work out what pointing is about when they see it."
Byrne and his colleague Anna Smet were studying tourist elephants near Victoria Falls, in southern Africa (that is the pachyderms gave rides to tourists, they weren't just there for a laugh). The animals were trained to follow certain vocal commands, but they weren't accustomed to pointing.
"Of course, we always hoped that our elephants would be able to learn to follow human pointing, or we'd not have carried out the experiments," Smet says. "What really surprised us is that they did not apparently need to learn anything. Their understanding was as good on the first trial as the last, and we could find no sign of learning over the experiment."
The full scientific details are available in the latest issue of Current Biology, here. ®