Elephants seem to get the point of pointing
- Article by: CARL ZIMMER
- New York Times
- October 10, 2013 - 7:43 PM
We point to things without giving much thought to what a sophisticated act it really is. By simply extending a finger, we can let other people know we want to draw their attention to an object.
As sophisticated as pointing may be, however, babies usually learn to do it by their first birthday. “If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews.
When scientists test other species, they find that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point.
But Byrne and graduate student Anna Smet say they have discovered wild animals that also appear to understand pointing: elephants. The study, involving just 11 elephants, is hardly the last word on the subject. But it raises a provocative possibility that elephants have a deep social intelligence that rivals humans’ in some ways.
Researchers use a simple but powerful test to see whether animals understand pointing. They put food in one of two identical containers and then silently point at the one with food in it. Then they wait to see which container the animal approaches. While primates and most other animals that have been studied fail the test, a few have done well. Most of them are domesticated mammals, with dogs proving to be especially good at understanding pointing.
These results have prompted some researchers to speculate that during domestication, animals evolve to become keenly aware of humans. Others have made a different argument; they propose that the wild ancestors of species like dogs were already keenly aware of each other. In fact, that pre-existing capacity may have made those wild species easy to domesticate.
In the mid-2000s, Byrne 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, he noticed, the elephants would curl their trunks, aiming them at the source of the smell.
“Maybe they were pointing,” Byrne said. “But we don’t know that. They could be just sniffing the breeze.”
Other researchers were intrigued but cautious about drawing conclusions from the study. Diana Reiss, an expert on elephant cognition at Hunter College in New York, wondered if the elephants had already learned about pointing by observing their handlers pointing to each other.
© 2013 Star Tribune