Annals Of Animal Intelligence: Elephants Understand Pointing

“Dude, it’s over there.”

Here’s another datapoint in humanity’s endlessly evolving understanding of animal intelligence, otherwise known as “Holy crap, they are smarter than we thought!”:

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, like 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 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.

Can’t say I am shocked (though I do wonder how they prevented the smell of the food being a factor). Anyhow, Byrne is interested in testing the pointing recognition of dolphins and whales. I can save him some time and money but letting him know that dolphin researchers like Lou Herman, among others, have pretty successful demonstrated that dolphins understand pointing. And pointing certainly gets used at SeaWorld and in other marine parks every day.

4 thoughts on “Annals Of Animal Intelligence: Elephants Understand Pointing”

  1. This kind of research ranks with Josh Plotnik’s studies — lots of questions about just how rigorous it was, the conditions in which it was conducted, the role of smell, as you say, etc. There are so many things that scientists who observe eles and other animals in the wild confirmed long ago; these seem like fun exercises to keep researchers employed.

  2. Sorry — I forgot one important point —

    Elephants used for safaris have been through brutal training. Doing studies like this on them are equivalent to doing similar studies on animals at SeaWorld and other marine parks. How can you say you’re getting accurate data?

    I don’t want to make it sound like I’m disparaging elephants’ abilities. Far from it!! But I cannot take studies such as this as legitimate. Observational studies of elephants and other animals in their native environments are the real thing.

  3. These results and their interpretation, while potentiallly interesting, have to be treated with caution. The work was done with stessed, captive elephants, presumably handled with strong domination to allow the riding safaris. Combined with lack of clear description of the methodology that would exclude other possible ways of them locating the food (including unintentional postural cues from the handlers), it does seem to be at best only a suggestive, and possibly a dubious, piece of work. Given that there are populations of free-ranging elephants with whom observational and even experimental studies are entirely feasible, one has to question the value of such research on captive elephants. And given the terrible threat of ivory hunters to the very survival of elephants as a species, it’s a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.

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