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2013

Elephants Get the Point of Pointing, Study Shows
New York Times, October 10, 2013
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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, and indicate which object it is.

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 W. 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, likes chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point of pointing.

But Dr. Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet now say they have discovered wild animals that also appears 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 if 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, 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.”

The logical way to start exploring this possibility would be to give elephants the pointing test. But these giant mammals are a lot more challenging to work with than a poodle. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that one of Dr. Byrne’s students, Ms. Smet, was able to run the test.

Ms. Smet traveled to Zimbabwe, where a company called Wild Horizons offers elephant-back safaris. Each morning, while the elephants were waiting to take tourists on a trip, Ms. Smet would set up two buckets behind a screen.

An elephant handler would bring one of the animals a few yards away from her. The elephant watched Ms. Smet lower pieces of fruit behind the screen and put them into one of the buckets. But the elephant couldn’t see which bucket she put the fruit in.

“I actually checked that from elephant height,” Ms. Smet said.

Ms. Smet then brought the buckets out from behind the screen and stood between them. She pointed at the one with the fruit inside, and the handler walked the elephant toward the buckets. Ms. Smet noted which bucket it stuck its trunk in first.
By Anna Smet and Richard Byrne

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.

Ms. Smet and Dr. Byrne published their results Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

The scientists were able to rule out the possibility that the elephants learned to associate pointing with food over the course of the experiments. “They were just as good on trial one,” said Dr. Byrne.

Other researchers were intrigued but cautious about drawing conclusions from the study. Diana Reiss, an expert on elephant cognition at Hunter College, wondered if the elephants had already learned about pointing by observing their handlers pointing to each other.

“In these elephant camps such opportunities can easily go unnoticed by their human caretakers,” said Dr. Reiss.

Dr. Byrne and Ms. Smet plan to address this question and investigate whether wild elephants can point to each other.

“It makes us want to revisit visual signals by elephants for elephants,” said Ms. Smet.

Dr. Byrne is also curious to know whether any other highly social wild mammals can also pass the pointing test. Whales and dolphins would be at the top of his list, but he isn’t holding his breath for those experiments to be published. “They make elephants look easy to work with,” he said.

Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company. Reproduced with permission.
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