Elephants understand pointing without being trained to recognise the human gesture, research has shown.
Scientists believe they may even use their trunks to communicate in a similar way to pointing. The ability may have evolved from the complex social system elephants inhabit, which involves recognising unspoken signals.
The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, shed light on the way elephants have been associated with humans for thousands of years.
The creatures seem to possess a natural ability to interact with humans despite not being domesticated in the same way as horses, dogs and camels.
“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,” said Prof Richard Byrne from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
“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 studied African elephants that used to give tourists rides near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. The animals were trained to follow vocal commands, but were not accustomed to pointing.
To their surprise, the researchers found that the elephants spontaneously understood human pointing and could use it as a cue to find food.
“When people want to direct the attention of others, they will naturally do so by pointing, starting from a very young age,” said Byrne. "Pointing is the most immediate and direct way that humans have for controlling others’ attention.
“Most other animals do not point, nor do they understand pointing when others do it. Even our closest relatives, the great apes, typically fail to understand pointing when it’s done for them by human carers; in contrast, the domestic dog, adapted to working with humans over many thousands of years and sometimes selectively bred to follow pointing, is able to follow human pointing – a skill the dogs probably learn from repeated, one-to-one interactions with their owners.”
Smet added: “Of course, we always hoped that our elephants would be able to learn to follow human pointing, or we would not have carried out the experiments. 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.”
Elephants with more experience of being around humans, or those born in captivity, were no better than less-experienced wild-born creatures at following pointing gestures.
Elephants are known to make regular prominent trunk gestures. It remains to be seen whether they act as “points” in elephant society, but the researchers do not rule it out.
“Elephants are cognitively much more like us than has been realised, making them able to understand our characteristic way of indicating things in the environment by pointing,” said Byrne. “This means that pointing is not a uniquely human part of the language system.”